You couldn't really blame Sean Johnson if his stomach turned just a little as he made his way back to Nashville, Tennessee, where the U.S. national team is holding training camp ahead of its Gold Cup opener against Panama on Saturday. Traumatic experiences have that kind of effect, and even though it has been five years since the worst moment of his career, it would have been normal for someone reliving a negative experience to feel some sort of unease.
Not Johnson, who is in the midst of what might just be the best period of his career. The New York City FC goalkeeper is enjoying an outstanding season with his new club, playing well enough to make his way back into the national team mix after more than a year out of the picture. He knows full well what happened half a decade ago, but he has long since put it behind him, even if he has spent the past two weeks faced with plenty of reminders.
"We’re staying at the same hotel, we’re training at the same field, playing at the same stadium,” Johnson told Goal. “It’s not like it’s some dark shadow hanging over my head. Situations like that happen to goalkeepers, it’s cool. Nashville is a great city and when I walk into the stadium on Saturday I don’t think any negative emotions will pop up.”
The incident in question took place on March 26, 2012, when the U.S. Under-23 national team took on El Salvador, needing a win to advance a step closer to a place in the Olympics. El Salvador refused to play the role of pushover and battled back from deficits on three occasions, the third coming at the expense of Johnson, who entered the match in the first half as an injury replacement for Bill Hamid.
Jamie Alas struck a shot from 30 yards out in the final minute of second-half stoppage time, a shot that seemed harmless as it headed toward Johnson. The ball bounced just in front of Johnson, who tried in vain to slap it away as it bounced up, only to have it hit his gloves before bouncing over him and into the net. The U.S. was eliminated from Olympic qualifying in heartbreaking fashion.
Though there was plenty of blame to go around for why the U.S. failed to reach the Olympics that year, Johnson became the scapegoat, with Alas' goal being replayed over and over as a goalkeeping blooper.
To make matters worse for Johnson, he suffered an injury shortly thereafter that sidelined him. Once he recovered, he knew he had to focus on putting the Olympic qualifying debacle behind him. He spoke with his Chicago Fire goalkeeper coach, Aron Hyde, at the time about putting the experience behind him.
"One of his real strengths, not just as a player, but as a person, is that he always looks forward," Hyde, who now coaches goalkeepers at Atlanta United, told Goal. "I'm sure deep down it hurt a little bit, and he knows it was a bad mistake, but overall it's just his personality to look forward and not dwell on things."
"In 2012 it was difficult to deal with, but it was pretty quick that I put it behind me," Johnson added. "After that summer of 2012 hit, Aron and I just sat down and talked about it to put everything behind me and press on.
"When I think back on that moment it was an experience that made me stronger."
The proof is in how Johnson handled himself in the years that followed. He played his way into the national team picture, taking part in World Cup qualifiers during the hexagonal round of qualifying in 2013, then earning a place on the U.S. Gold Cup squad that eventually won the title that summer. A year later, Johnson was selected as an alternate for the 2014 World Cup, narrowly missing out when coach Jurgen Klinsmann chose Nick Rimando to be the U.S. team's third goalkeeper behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan.
The five years since his last trip to Nashville hasn't been all smooth sailing. After the 2014 World Cup, Johnson slowly faded out of Klinsmann's national team picture, earning January camp call-ups but not much else. In 2016, Johnson endured another trying period when he was benched to start the MLS season.
"Looking back on that situation I really don’t know why I wasn’t playing last year," Johnson said. "It’s not something that was really ever communicated to me clearly. For me, the most important thing was that I learned a lot in those months when I didn’t play.
"As a player you go through certain moments in your career that define your career and either help press you forward or take you backwards, and I think I used it as positive motivation."
Johnson leaned on a fellow member of the goalkeeping fraternity during his trying time in Chicago: none other than New York Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, who Johnson befriended when both were in the 2016 U.S. January camp.
"Being able to talk to him through that situation definitely helped," Johnson said. "He’s a really genuine guy, a good dude and it’s been great. Ever since we’ve kept in contact and stayed close. He’s been really good for me in helping relate to my experiences."
Of course now Johnson and Robles are on opposite ends of one of the league's bigger rivalries, which Johnson believes just adds to the fun.
"It’s really cool to compete against him, and also have that relationship off the field," Johnson said. "And I think it’s going to be a good one for years to come."
How Johnson even arrived at NYCFC is a testament to how things have turned for the better in his career. The Fire made it clear they were going in another direction after the 2016 season and orchestrated a deal to send Johnson to Atlanta United, the new expansion team forming in his hometown. A wrench was thrown into the plans when Guzan became available and Atlanta United decided it wanted him instead. New York City FC was in the market for a goalkeeper and quickly pounced.
Johnson could have easily been dismayed by missing out on playing for his hometown team, but he was actually excited about the new opportunity.
"At the end of the day I ended up in a great position, at a great club, and I'm happy now," Johnson said. "I expected [NYCFC] to be top notch, and to have great players, but it's exceeded all my expectations."
NYCFC fans might say the feeling is mutual, as Johnson has stepped in and given the team a steady presence in goal. He has adapted well to NYCFC's possession-based style. During his seven seasons with the Fire, Johnson never really had to handle the ball as much as he does now, and after some early-season hiccups, Johnson has settled into a good rhythm and boasts some of the best passing stats of any goalkeeper in the league.
"I never really got a chance to play in a system where building from the back was such an important part of the team’s tactical approach," Johnson said. "They’ve always been skills that I’ve had, but being in that environment has allowed me to sharpen my skills. I feel like I’ve gotten better in New York because I’m doing it day in and day out, using the talents that you have allows you to sharpen that."
"It doesn't really surprise me that he's doing well with that part of the game because he always had good feet," said Hyde. "He's comfortable with both feet and I think now people can see what he brings to that part of the game."
Now a more well-rounded goalkeeper than the one who left Nashville five years ago, Johnson is back with a much different agenda. After years spent as a young apprentice in the national team goalkeeper setup, Johnson now has aspirations to be the U.S. starter. It is a position that has been dominated by Howard and Guzan for the better part of the past dozen years, but with Howard now 38 and Guzan turning 33 in September, the need for younger options is clear and Johnson is definitely one of the candidates to step in and fill the void.
"As a young guy you want to get in and work hard and learn as much as you can about playing at that level, and it was obviously a good group of guys to learn from," said Johnson, who was just 21 when he attended his first national team camp. "As you experience things, as you grow as a player, things change as far as your mentality. Now, being with New York, and with me and the club doing well, you want to look to press on to be the main guy for the U.S. That’s got to be the mindset now."
Johnson, 28, finds himself facing a familiar rival in the current U.S. camp. Along with Guzan, who is expected to start, Johnson is partnered up in the goalkeeper group with Hamid. The two have been linked together since they both broke in as young MLS starters and national team prospects early on in their careers. They were also both teammates on the 2012 U.S. Olympic qualifying team, and both endured the nightmare of missing the Olympics together. It was Hamid who tried to play through an injury and likely cost his team a goal when he was unable to chase down a pass through the penalty area, and it was Johnson and Hamid who found themselves developing a deeper respect and appreciation for each other after they both experienced that 2012 debacle.
"I think going through that showed me that you can be rivals but there's still that bond you have, that we're in this together," Johnson said. "We've been competing with each other for years. I've been his backup before. He's been my backup before. And when we go against each other we're always trying to outdo each other. There's a respect there for sure, but I think it's just a case of us both being very competitive."
With the 2018 World Cup less than a year away, Johnson and Hamid will both be competing for a place on the U.S. World Cup team, and the upcoming Gold Cup will offer both a chance to impress Arena. It's a competition Johnson relishes, and one he believes he is ready for. After all the ups and downs he has already endured, Johnson believes he is at his best right now and ready to create more good memories to help overshadow the bad ones, like that night in Nashville five years ago.
"I’m in a lot better place than I was in 2012 as far as playing-wise, experience, things like that, so now the task at hand is the Gold Cup," Johnson said. "I’ve played in a Gold Cup before, I’ve won a Gold Cup before. Now it's about continuing to play well, and show that I belong on the national team, and I'm going to be around for a while."