How do you make Sean Johnson smile? Just mention MLS Cup.
During a thirty-minute conversation that focuses heavily on December’s memorable moment the club captain can’t help but beam. That magical day in Portland which delivered NYCFC its first major silverware and saw Johnson achieve a lifetime ambition, is understandably, still sinking in.
“It's pretty surreal man,” he said. “So many good moments, so many memories, having family there, our club is tremendous. To have just that support group there and to share that moment with people that we care about just speaks volumes to what our values are as a club and what family and togetherness means, not only from our players, but from the front office and ownership that trickles right down.”
The goalkeeper’s recollection of events can best be described as an almost two-and-a-half-hour rollercoaster ride. It can take mere seconds for things to change in soccer - like when Felipe Mora scores a 94th minute injury time equalizer to force the game into extra-time – and that saw the pocket of traveling fans run the full gamut of emotions.
“For me, in that moment there was a lot going on,” he explained. “This is a big moment for their club. As you can imagine, that kind of reignited their hopes of lifting a cup. For me, it was about kind of tuning all of that noise out and really coming back to kind of a level place and recenter.
“I got the group focused on the task, but it wasn’t a moment that I felt shattered or like the game ended. The walk over to the sideline I just really took my time. I wanted to give the guys the time they were needing to settle down because they’d put everything into the game up until that point. Everybody handles those situations in a different way.”
He went onto add: “After that it’s just about bringing everybody together and reminding everybody that we've been in this position before - earlier in the playoffs with New England. Extratime was a moment where we can embrace the positive instead of thinking of it as a drag.
“We should have finished the game out, it's alright, we got 30 more minutes to take care of business and, plus maybe a penalty shootout. If you're champions at the end of that you're still champions.”
Johnson’s serenity in the heat of the moment is symbolic of his own journey with NYCFC. The MLS Cup MVP joined NYCFC in 2017. The Georgia native has suffered heartbreak in the playoffs with this team before, but it was the lessons of the past that guided him through that testing moment.
“I would say it's probably a more recent development,” he said. “I think, in terms of my experiences as a goalkeeper, as a player with the newer role of leadership outwardly within this group I've always done my best to give what I can and keep the group headed in the right direction. I think the entire year there was a commitment from all the players to buy into what we were trying to build at the club. It’s giving reminders because everybody is capable. We have a group of responsible guys so it's just being a voice to give reminders of who we are, what we're about, and not letting any moment really overshadow that. I think you have to go through experiences in your career to be able to kind of develop who you are.”
The task of beating Portland Timbers at Providence Park was never going to be easy. Historically, only two of the last ten MLS Cup winners had been away teams – that number is now three. If the Club Captain wanted to lead by example there are few better ways than to twice deny Portland in the penalty shootout.
“I think I was still very calm knowing that there was going to be a lot of penalty shootout left to go,” Johnson said of his first save from Felipe Mora. “I think after Steve [Clark] saved his it was about getting back into the moment. It [the second save] was validation for stepping back into the moment, being present, and that's when I let a little a little bit of emotion out and yeah, the rest the boys took care of it.”
Where Johnson played his part, so too did his teammates. Maxi Moralez and Talles Magno helped maintain the two-goal cushion, and that left one final taker, defender Alex Callens.
“When Callens stepped up - I mean massive moment - in New England as well stepping up and taking the last PK there,” Johnson said smiling. “I think I was looking at the ground for the first few seconds, knowing that that moment was there again for us. The ref blew the whistle, Callens made his run up, hit the ball, I saw the net, and it was just a direct beeline for him – flooded with emotions.”
This was soccer at its most polarizing. Johnson’s ecstasy played against Steve Clark’s agony, there was now a fault line of emotion between the two teams. Friends and family that had shadowed this journey echoed the joy shared by the band of brothers on the field.
The wind and rain had cloaked the game all afternoon, but the glow of a Championship can keep even the coldest souls warm.
Now as the team prepares to play its home opener and raise a first Championship banner on Saturday, Johnson would be forgiven for still wearing his medal, the consequence of more than 10,000 hours honing his craft to reach this moment and call himself a champion.
“I actually put the medal around my dad’s neck in Portland in the final. He took it back to Georgia and put it in a special place,” he said, that smile reappearing one last time.