[USA MEN] Nick Rimando may be expected to start in goal again when the USA faces El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarterfinals on Sunday, but that doesn't mean Sean Johnson didn't pass a crucial test with his performance against Costa Rica last Tuesday.
For Rimando, a 34-year-old with 14 years of MLS experience and perennial third-stringer to regulars Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, the Gold Cup meant finally getting significant minutes at the international level. But after Rimando got starts against weaklings Belize and Cuba, the 24-year-old Johnson, who had only played three previous times for the USA, got the start against a much more formidable foe.
Costa Rica returned to the USA set on avenging its controversial 1-0 defeat in a March World Cup qualifier now known as the “Snow Bowl” to face an upstart American side that had been scoring goals in bunches.
Adding to the magnitude of the match, Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto said his team would attack the Americans as it needed a victory to win Group C, whereas the USA just needed a draw to advance as the group champion.
Despite his age, Johnson boasts an impressive amount of professional experience. After two standout seasons at the University of Central Florida as well as inclusion on the USA’s squad at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, the Chicago Fire selected Johnson in the fourth round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Although he one of the last picks in the draft -- 51st overall -- it didn’t take long for the Georgia native to make an impact. After winning the starting job in early August 2010, Johnson hasn’t looked back and has gone on to make 86 appearances for the Fire. For his efforts, Klinsmann has rewarded Johnson with frequent call-ups, primarily in an understudy role to Howard or Guzan.
But Johnson’s most notable appearance on the international stage went badly. American fans will painfully recall the U.S. U-23 team’s failure at the 2012 Concacaf Olympic Qualifying tournament. Despite boasting a talented squad led by current senior team players Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea, the heavily favored Americans tied El Salvador in the final group stage match after Johnson – who came off the bench to replace injured Bill Hamid -- inexplicably spilled a stoppage time shot into his net, resulting in elimination for the USA.
But when faced with another crucial international test on Tuesday, Johnson came through in a big way. While Shea’s goal off of a beautiful assist from Landon Donovan may steal the headlines, it was Johnson’s acrobatic save from a close-range header after a Costa Rican corner that led to the game-winning goal. Johnson’s reflex-save not only jumpstarted the American counterattack, it denied Costa Rica on its best chance of the game.
Although Johnson was largely untested throughout the match, when he was asked to make a big-time save he delivered, a truly essential task any keeper must accomplish. A performance indicating he leads the group of younger keepers in line to take over when the veterans move on.