Let's face it, the United States does not exactly produce Lionel Messi's on a regular basis, but one thing we give the soccer world aplenty is quality goalkeeping. From Tim Howard to Marcus Hahnemann to Brad Friedel to Kasey Keller (to name just a few), one thing the U.S. can do is produce great netminders. And I truly do believe that our own Sean Johnson is next in line. However, I am going to put this out there right now: Jon Conway should be in goal against Portland on Thursday. Hear me out after the break.
First off, I will acknowledge something like this is always a tough subject to bring up. We all love the Fire and every player that pulls on that jersey, but sometimes questions have to be asked and accountability needs to be enforced. After seeing the Sounders game Saturday, I think Sean Johnson may need a game or two on the bench to clear his head. Although this may not be a popular view, I think it needs to be explored.
As HTIOT's player rating maestro Dave Wilson mentioned after the FC Dallas game and following the Seattle Sounders match, Sean is misjudging the right times to come out in the box. I completely agree with this. No keeper is perfect, there is no player that can stop every shot. However, Sean is moving between being overly aggressive on attempts to punch crosses and not moving at all. Take the goals scored on Saturday. While it can be argued, again as Dave pointed out, that not having Josip Mikulic hurt the back line and specifically Anibaba, I put both goals on Sean. I think he was too slow to move on O'Brian White's header. I realize he may not have expected the shot to come on frame, but some crazy English was placed on the ball and it left Sean just standing there. White was not in a conventional position to put a header away, but there should be no excuse for not protecting the near post on that goal. At the very least you have to drop back on the line and make sure the ball is clearly out of play. And if it's not, it should be an easy save.
Erik Friberg's epic miss is another play that can be analyzed. Sean stormed out for the ball only to fail to land a punch on it. Mauro Rosales heads the ball strikes out harder than an over served slugger playing 16-inch softball in Grant Park. Fortunately, Friberg's touch was a bit heavy, sending the ball over the crossbar. I know deciding when to come out vs. when to stay in the box is not an exact science, I mean I did play a bit of goalkeeper myself back in the day. Seriously though, it can be one of the toughest things a young goalie learns. Friberg ended up getting an open shot on goal and he wasn't the only one who could have gotten that thanks to Sean's decision either. Take a look at the highlight clip here at the 1:50 mark. Let's say Sean does connect with the ball. Well he has just taken down a Fire teammate and he himself is on the ground as the ball goes toward the oncoming Seattle midfield. That's a different empty net chance Seattle could have had. Sean has to start making quicker decisions on staying or going. We can't count on an encore performance of Friberg every time.
Moving on to the second goal, that should never have happened in my opinion. As Dave pointed out in his player ratings article for the game, had Sean slid over to his right a bit more to cut off the post, it would have forced Steve Zakuani into an incredibly tough shot. Then the only realistic shot that Zakuani could take would be a chip shot over Sean into the far back corner of the net. I would take my chances on a shot like that, it's definitely not high percentage. If that happens to you as a keeper, you just have to tip your hat to the opposing team.
On another day, Johnson may have saved all of these chances and we would be singing his praises. The trend so far this season seems to suggest that for whatever reason, Sean is playing a different game this year than he has in the past. Is it the proverbial "sophomore slump"? Could it be the pressure of his first USMNT callup? Could it be due to roster turnover and not being as in tune with his back line as he was last year with the new faces of Anibaba, Mikulic, and Gibbs on the roster?
Whatever the degree of any and all causes, Sean's results make me think it would be good to give Jon Conway a start . Sean is clearly our future and has the potential to be on the level of some of the most storied U.S. goalkeepers but everyone hits a rough patch or a rut. A game or two off can help to clear your head and help you realize that, even though you may have incredible talent, everyone goes through growing pains. Sometimes we forget our goalie is only 21 years old. Sean is an incredible keeper, and can make some crazy saves, but his career the last year has been a whirlwind. From starting preseason as a third-string goalie to earning the starting role halfway through last season to a USMNT call up, Sean has had quite a ride. Jon Conway is a veteran that is mentoring Sean and helping him along his career path. A breather for Sean along with some time to evaluate his meteoric rise is completely essential for him to be able to relax, take it all in and take the next step in his wonderful Chicago Fire and USMNT career.