When NYCFC was defeated by Toronto FC in the second round of the MLS playoffs last season, it was easy to see that the Blues needed reinforcements for the new year.
One of the most glaring holes in the squad was between the sticks. Josh Saunders had been the chosen keeper for the past 2 seasons and his frailties were well-documented.
As a fan, I recall sitting in the stands, genuinely nervous that routine attempts at New York City’s goal would beat the Puerto Rico international. His presence simply did not inspire confidence. To be fair to the 36-year-old, he didn’t exactly have the most solid defense in the MLS in front of him. The combination of the two made most fans nervous, and eventually led to the untested Eirik Johansen replacing Saunders for good on the final day of the 2016 regular season.
Of course, that move culminated in Toronto’s seven-goal playoff destruction of the Blues in October.
At this point, Vieira was forced to go back to the drawing board. In the offseason, the Frenchman and his staff made several upgrades to the roster and spine of the team, including at keeper.
NYCFC were able to sign Sean Johnson from Atlanta United on the same day that the expansion side had acquired him from Chicago. To complete the deal, New York City shipped a combination of general and targeted allocation money.
Johnson put together a solid run in Chicago, earning back-to-back "Save of the Week" honors in 2010, his rookie campaign. He would be named the Chicago Fire's Defender of the Year in 2013 thanks to a 11–9–7 record that included 6 clean sheets. And today, with Johnson patrolling the box, New York City are looking revitalized. There is a newfound confidence among players with the 28-year-old in goal.
That being said, it’s important to highlight the positive effect that players like Alexander Callens, Ben Sweat, Yangel Herrera, and Alex Ring have had this season. They have all been improvements in their respective positions. But it’s Johnson we most need talk about, because he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Fortunately, the U.S. international made the MLS Team of the Week with an essentially perfect performance in Los Angeles, helping the Blues down the Galaxy 2-0.
In this match, Johnson exemplified his talent by literally standing on his head at moments during the match. While New York City as a whole should be credited for the performance, there were times that they were all but beaten. In these moments, they asked the world of Johnson to keep them alive, and the Georgia native responded.
Had another keeper stood between the sticks for Vieira’s team that night, the result may have been different. On this night, he proved to many that he is up there with the premier goalkeepers in North America.
In 22 MLS matches this season, Johnson has only allowed 29 goals, with four coming in one match against Toronto FC. The big shot-stopper has 5 shutouts on the season to boot.
To get a point of reference, Josh Saunders allowed 56 goals in 33 matches last year. If we compare the two keepers, Johnson allows 1.32 goals per match since joining NYCFC, where Saunders allowed an unsightly 1.70. Furthermore, Saunders allowed 56 goals in 32 matches in his first season with the Blues, leading to a similarly poor goal-allowed-ratio of 1.75.
It’s easy to see that Johnson is a significant upgrade on both Saunders and the young Johansen, who struggled in goal earlier this summer while Johnson was an unused benchwarmer for the United States at the Gold Cup.
His large frame and monstrous hands have allowed him to dominate his goal box. He handles crosses and breakaways with a level skill and dominance New York City fans may not have expected, and his surprising ability to play out of the back is a major upgrade indeed.
And with Johnson behind them, NYCFC’s defense just looks more confident.
Overall, Patrick Vieira has to be happy with the team he has, and particularly with the additions he made in the offseason. One has to think that if NYCFC can make a run in the playoffs this season, Johnson figures to be a major key to their success.