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Will Sean Johnson start for the USMNT against Mexico?

Injuries to Zack Steffen, Matt Turner clears the way for the NYCFC goalkeeper to play for the USMNT at the Azteca.

Sean Johnson is good in goal | Courtesy

When head coach Gregg Berhalter announces the USMNT roster for the final three 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying matches, we can expect to see Sean Johnson on the list. Berhalter clearly rates the New York City FC goalkeeper, giving Johnson four caps since the coach took over the national team even though the squad is deep at that position: Manchester City’s Zack Steffen and soon-to-be-Arsenal’s Matt Turner can both lay claim to being the USMNT’s top choice in goal.

Lately, both Steffen and Turner haven’t been in their team’s lineups due to injuries. That could clear the way for Johnson to start when the USMNT face Mexico at the Estadio Azteca on Thursday, March 24.

It will be a high-profile game for the USMNT, which are currently in second place in the World Cup Qualifying table and in a good position to advance—or flame out, just like it’s 2017 all over again. And it definitely will be a high-pressure game for the keeper, who could be a part of the first USMNT ever to beat Mexico in a competitive game at the Azteca.

Steffen, Turner: Undisclosed injuries

Both Steffen and Turner haven’t suited up for their respective teams lately, and both haven’t fully disclosed their injuries. 

Steffen missed games in January and February due to reported back tightness: He last played on February 5. When Manchester City played Sporting SC in the Champions League this past week, Ederson started in goal, with 19-year-old goalkeeper Cieran Slicker on the bench. Steffen is on the bench for today’s game against Crystal Palace, the first time he was named to a lineup since February 9.

For his part, Turner last started in a competitive game on February 2, when the USMNT defeated Honduras 3-0 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, MN. That was the snowy game in which the temperature on the field was a reported 5˚ F at kickoff—two Honduran players left the game because of exposure, and Turner spent the match bundled up in tights and a snood, keeping warm by jumping and skipping around like a Jazzercise instructor.

Some whispered that Turner was injured in that game, possibly due to exposure, but the semi-official word is that he’s suffering a minor foot injury that has kept him out of training with the New England Revolution, his current club. Earl Edwards Jr. has started in all four of New England’s competitive matches this year.

The case for Johnson

Johnson can make a strong case that he’s the USMNT number-one goalkeeper. First, Johnson’s playoff performances at the end of 2021 were spectacular: One key penalty save against New England (which was one more save than Turner made), two MLS Cup-winning penalty saves against the Portland Timbers, four solid performances—three of which were on the road. Second, Johnson’s 2022 form is solid: Three shutouts in six competitive games, with just three goals allowed.

In addition, Johnson’s recent record with the national team is perfect. He didn’t allow a goal in his last four games for the USMNT, blanking Costa Rica and Ecuador once each, and Panama twice.

But the strongest case he can make for himself will be how he comports himself tomorrow night, when NYCFC travel to Guatemala City to play Comunicaciones FC in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. In many ways, the game against Comunicaciones cold be Johnson’s audition for the USMNT match against Mexico.

Comunicaciones are a physical team that will try to save their CCL campaign by harassing the NYCFC defense and creating chaos in front of the goal: Johnson will have a busy evening and will need to keep his cool. The game will be played at the 26,000-capacity Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores, which might be smaller than the Azteca but it will be just as hostile. The elevation of Guatemala City is 5000’, which isn’t quite the 7350’ of Mexico City but it’s closer to the mark than New York or London.

If Johnson performs well, it just might prompt Berhalter to give him the start.

The competition: Ethan Horvath and Gabriel Solnina

Berhalter has two other in-form goalkeepers he could select, Nottingham Forest’s Ethan Horvath and Chicago Fire’s Gabriel Solnina.

The 26-year old Horvath is the pundit’s pick. After spending the start of the season on the bench, Horvath started the last five games for Nottingham Forest, allowing just one goal. The team has gone undefeated in that run, climbing to ninth place on the table—that’s within striking distance of the playoff spot for promotion.

The 17-year-old Solnina is the Hollywood pick. The wunderkind is the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history, and has been a sensation since he took over the starting spot for Chicago last year—in fact, Solnina made his professional debut against NYCFC, holding New York scoreless in a 2-0 Chicago win. So far this season, Solnina has logged three shutouts in three starts.

The myth of the Azteca

Still, you need to keep in mind that Berhalter isn’t just picking the starting goalkeeper for the USMNT, he’s picking the goalkeeper who he’s going to send to the monumental Azteca, one of the great citadels of fútbol: This is the 87,500-capacity stadium where opposing teams are sacrificed in front a thunderingly loud home crowd.

Mexico has lost only one World Cup Qualifying match at the Azteca: In 2001, Costa Rica snatched two late goals to beat El Tri 2-1 and silence the stadium. That game is now known as the Aztecazo.

But even if Mexico only lost one World Cup Qualifying game at the Azteca, it doesn’t always win. In 2013, the USMNT drew El Tri 0-0. In 2017, the USMNT drew Mexico again, this time by a score of 1-1.

On March 24, Mexico will be playing to win. Currently in third place in the CONCACAF table with three games left to play, Mexico trails the USMNT on goal differential: A victory will all but guarantee them a place in the 2022 World Cup. It will also avenge the 2-0 “Man in the Mirror” loss to the USMNT on November 12, 2021

Steffen was the keeper for that game, which was played at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati— Midfielder Weston McKennie scored the second goal. Steffen won’t be with the USMNT next week, and neither will McKennie (broken foot). The game at the Azteca will have a greater profile, and higher stakes: It will be louder, and harder-fought, and more physical. 

This isn’t a game for a keeper who’s just stringing together five starts in the EFL Championship, or for a 17-year-old who wants to take on the world—right after he gets off the Unlimited Data Family Plan paid for by his parents. This game is a high-pressure cage match and you want a brick wall in the goal, a an unflappable veteran who knows how to block out the hostile crowd and get the job done.

For this game at the Azteca, you want Johnson.