Johnson stronger than ever in the net

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 9:  Real Salt Lake vs. Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on May 9, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois.   (Chicago Fire Photo/Brian Kersey)

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 9: Real Salt Lake vs. Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on May 9, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Chicago Fire Photo/Brian Kersey)


CHICAGO, IL - MAY 9: Real Salt Lake vs. Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on May 9, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Chicago Fire Photo/Brian Kersey)

Those who follow soccer closely know the moment well.

It was the evening of March 26 in Nashville, Tenn. The U.S. men's soccer team, needing a win over El Salvador to advance in Olympic qualifying, held a 3-2 advantage and were minutes, seconds maybe, from pushing closer to a spot in this summer's London Games.

Then El Salvador's Jaime Alas took a seemingly harmless shot, more than four minutes into stoppage time, that snuck past U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Johnson, a former standout at Brookwood, dove a little early, the ball took a high carom off his hands and then trickled into the net.

With that, the Americans' hopes of making this year's Olympics were done.

A nation's soccer frustration needed a target, and spread the blame around on coaching, lack of aggression with a lead and shoddy, late-game defense. Much of the abuse also was heaped on Johnson, and his miss of a save he typically makes look easy. He was perfect up until that goal after stepping in for injured starter Bill Hamid, who gave up the first two El Salvador goals.

While the criticism wasn't fair, it was still a make-or-break moment for Johnson. It would be in any athlete's career.

It's impossible to prepare yourself for that kind of adversity.

"(Johnson) feels like he's let everybody down, let his teammates down, and I told him he didn't," U.S. coach Caleb Porter told reporters after the loss.

In the ensuing months, Johnson hasn't shied away from his mistake. The former Atlanta Fire United star has been asked about it repeatedly.

Each time he's politely answered and stressed that he won't let one mistake define his career. It's the kind of mentality that top goalkeepers must possess.

"I'm well past that now," Johnson said during a recent afternoon off from his Major League Soccer team, the Chicago Fire. "This many months down the road, I'm just using it as a positive. I don't really think about it too much now actually. You can't dwell on it. You just put it behind you and stay positive."

Johnson has done just that.

If the 23-year-old's confidence was shaken in Olympic qualifying, it's definitely behind him. Looking stronger than ever, Johnson has been a major force in the Fire's recent surge to fourth in the MLS' Eastern Conference standings.

Chicago is 3-0-1 in its last four matches, upping its record to 8-5-4 entering a Sunday matchup with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Johnson has been the club's No. 1 goalie, making 45 saves in his 14 starts for a 7-4-3 record.

His save percentage (76 percent) is tied for second in MLS among goalkeepers with double-figure starts.

"It's been going well," Johnson said of the MLS season. "If we keep playing the way we've been playing, our goal of making the playoffs is definitely in sight."

The 6-foot-3, 217-pounder's last two outings have been road shutouts in tough atmospheres, a 1-0 win at Kansas City on June 29 and a 0-0 tie at Houston earlier this week.

His game-changing efforts in the Kansas City match were obvious, with some highlight-reel saves.

"If (Johnson's) not on top of his game like that, I think it's a different game," Kansas City coach Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com.

"(Johnson's) ability to make saves like that has always been there, his athletic ability is incredible," Fire coach Frank Klopas said after the KC win on the MLS site. "I thought other parts of his game are getting better; managing the game in situations, when to play quick and when not to, his presence in the box, coming out. But in the end of the game, he made some world-class saves."

It's that athletic ability and potential that made Johnson a hot prospect after leaving Central Florida for the MLS Draft. A highly touted Generation Adidas prospect, Johnson was expected to do big things in MLS and for the Americans in international play.

With more experience --he has 55 MLS starts since debuting in 2010 --that potential is starting to show. His physical ability is still impressive, but the other areas of his game are growing stronger daily.

He also has faced tremendous adversity head on, and emerged better from it.

"I think I've improved in all aspects, physically and mentally," said Johnson, who stood out mostly at Brookwood as a forward in soccer and an athletic frontcourt player in basketball. "I have a long way to go obviously, but I'm getting better. I'm still looking for that consistency. I'm challenging myself every year to be more consistent. That's a big goal for me."