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Sean Johnson is leading man with defining role

Ex-Fire goalie is one win from glory with New York City FC.

New York City FC goalie Sean Johnson looks on against the Philadelphia Union during the MLS Eastern Conference Final on Sunday in Chester, Penn.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Sean Johnson finally has a chance to lift the MLS Cup trophy.

The Fire’s former No. 1 goalkeeper and New York City FC are visiting the Portland Timbers in Saturday’s league championship game. Johnson, 32, is in his fifth season with NYCFC and his first as captain and figures to be one of the key players in the final.

“For me, personally, being at this club now for five years, understanding the standards this club has and how much it means to put ourselves in position to win the MLS Cup, I think means everything,” Johnson said in a news conference Thursday. “Just understanding the passion the fans have had over the years and support we’ve had from the organization and with everybody involved, it’s a special moment for us and one that we’re definitely wanting to take advantage of.”

Not that long ago, Fire fans dreamed of Johnson leading their team to this point. From 2010 to 2016, he made 176 appearances with the Fire. He was well-liked by supporters and seen as a strong goalie with manageable flaws. But then-coach Veljko Paunovic and then-general manager Nelson Rodriguez soured on Johnson, who was traded to Atlanta United and then sent to NYCFC after the 2016 season.

While the Fire struggled to find a suitable replacement for Johnson until the emergence of Bobby Shuttleworth in 2020, followed by Gabriel Slonina’s arrival this year, Johnson has been a steadying force for NYCFC. He has started 145 games in five seasons, impressing with his play on the field and his presence off it.

NYCFC coach Ronny Deila said Johnson has been a “fantastic” goalkeeper — always professional and 100% committed.

“He cares about everybody around him,” Deila said. “That’s also one of the reasons why he’s the captain of the team, because he goes in front with the values we want to have and wants to be better, wants to practice, wants to perform — [and] at the same time, also take care of everybody.”

Deila said that kind of leadership is important for a team like NYCFC, which has diverse personalities and languages. Johnson, he said, helps take everybody in the same direction.

Johnson said he was welcomed warmly upon arrival and grew as a player after adapting to his new surroundings.

“We have such a diverse locker room — guys from different backgrounds all over the world — and really learning how to bring that all together to become a successful family was the most important thing and something I’m definitely appreciative of,” Johnson said. “This club’s given me everything, and more so the opportunity to step into a place that has such high standards, and we finally have gotten to the point where we’re on the verge of achieving something that we’ve all been working so hard for.”