What a difference a game makes.
The United States Men’s National Team played the toughest opponent they will face this international break when they took the field against Uruguay yesterday, and New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson emerged the hero.
We’re not going to recap the scoreless draw before 19,569 fans at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City: We’ll leave that to our friends at Stars and Stripes FC and 90min.com. Instead, we’ll look at the significance of Johnson’s player-of-the-match performance, and what it might mean for the USMNT roster when the 2022 FIFA World Cup Finals roll around in November. (Side note: It’s time for football to replace the outdated “Man of the Match” with the more inclusive “Player of the Match” — POTM works just as well, and can be used for any player in every league.)
Johnson was the unlikely starter in this game. He was called up for this training camp only after Manchester City’s Zack Steffen withdrew for family reasons, which implies he’s fourth on the depth chart behind Steffen, regular starter Matt Turner, and Nottingham Forest’s Evan Hovarth. Still, last week we argued that Johnson’s deserved to make a start for the USMNT: He’s arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS right now, logging six clean sheets in a row and eight overall out of 13 starts. He’s also playing every week. While Turner started just five games this season after suffering an injury in February, and Horvath lost his starting position at Nottingham in March, Johnson is minding the net for the best team in MLS, keeping NYCFC competitive in matches when the hot-and-cold attack has trouble scoring.
That’s exactly what we saw yesterday: Johnson kept the USMNT in the game even though things weren’t clicking in the attacking third. The United States could have won, maybe — Johnson deserves credit for putting the squad in the position of trying for the game-winner and not finding an equalizer.
He did that but shutting out a formidable opponent. Uruguay won their previous five games, scoring a combined 10 goals against Mexico, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Yesterday, the Uruguay attack was led by 22-year-old Darwin Núñez, a striker who scored 41 goals in all competitions for Benfica last year — including 10 in the UEFA Champion’s League. Núñez is valued at $75 million, and trade rumors linking him to Liverpool FC and Manchester United are swirling in this transfer window. He’s good.
And he came to play: The highlight of the game was Johnson’s point-blank save of a Núñez shot a few steps from the goal line. A looping cross found Núñez and Federico Valverde unmarked on the left, and Johnson blocked an awkward poke Núñez made from between Valveverde’s legs. It’s a strange and dangerous shot, and a brilliant block that saved the game for the USMNT.
Much is made of the uselessness of goalkeeping stats: The wonks will tell you that saves and clean sheets and goals allowed and wins mean nothing, that more sophisticated metrics such as PSxG give you a better understanding of a particular player’s performance. Maybe. While PSxG and other stats might do a better job of quantifying key plays, they still don’t account for the x-factor that a goalkeeper brings to a squad.
Not only did Johnson make a vital save, and pass the ball well, he kept his cool behind a defensive line that was inconsistent and jumpy, and sometimes simply failed to mark members of the Uruguay attack. He was a calm, reassuring force in the goal. His composure allowed the defense to regain their shape after getting pulled apart by Uruguay and marshal what energy they had left to contend with the next attack.
He was the best player on the field:
The truth is, this was the perfect test for Johnson. It was a high-pressure, low-stakes game, a friendly that counted for nothing against a quality opponent that gave the team a taste of what to expect at a World Cup where they will face England and Wales in the group stage. Johnson proved that he was up to the task.
The performance allowed the rest of the country to get behind Johnson, and appreciate what it means when an in-form keeper anchors the defense. It also gives USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter a legitimate second choice for a starting goalkeeper. It’s good to have options.