One way or another, you know when Sean Johnson is around.
The goalkeeper's teammates hear him shouting signals and leading the team's defense.
Opposing strikers who collide with his 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame aren't likely to escape without a bruise.
And Chicago soccer fans can find him trying to guide the Fire back to the playoffs.
As the team prepares for its MLS home opener Saturday at Toyota Park, the franchise should be in good hands with Johnson in net. The 23-year-old was third in the league last season, with 108 saves, and he turned in a career-low 1.24 goals against average in 31 matches.
Ten of those saves came in a 1-1 tie at San Jose, an effort that still has his compatriots shaking their heads in disbelief.
"It was one of the best performances I've seen from a goalie," said Fire striker Chris Rolfe, who has 10 appearances with the U.S. national team. "When you have a guy who's able to keep you single-handedly in games at times, that not only gives the guys on our team such a belief that we can win but also makes it extremely frustrating for the team that we're playing against."
Cutting down angles, directing the defense on free kicks, imposing his will on the match—it's all part of growing into an elite goalkeeper. The Fire will need the fourth-year player to dominate if they are to improve on 2012's disappointing finish. Chicago was eliminated in its postseason opener at home against Houston.
"Athletically, he's a freak," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "He's just unbelievable in terms of his quickness for a guy that size. But behind the scenes I don't think everyone gets to see the kind of kid he is. The work ethic that he has is tremendous."
Surely this is not lost on opponents, either. At least, that's what the Fire are hoping.
"His physical presence is definitely intimidating," Rolfe said. "When I line up for a kickoff and I look down at the other end of the field and I see someone like Sean, I'm thinking to myself, 'Wow, how am I going to beat this guy today?'
"The one time I did run into a goalie was New England's goalkeeper, Matt Rees, and he isn't even as big as Sean, and that's something I obviously do not want to do again. Sean is really good about that in training. If he sees me coming, he keeps in mind that he doesn't wanna break me."
It's possible Johnson would never have discovered his talent for deflecting shots traveling 60 mph if it weren't for a trip to Jamaica, his parents' native country, during his youth soccer days.
"Our goalkeeper went down and nobody really wanted to step up," said Johnson, who was born in Atlanta and played in college at Central Florida. "It was muddy and rainy … so I decided it would be a cool opportunity. I hopped in there and I loved it, sliding around in the mud, blocking shots. I got to high school and I started getting serious about it. I started getting really good training in high school, and it took off from there."
Johnson also honed his basketball skills in high school, and he credits that background for part of his growth as a goalkeeper. He played power forward in Snelville, Ga.
"You see a lot of soccer players that have basketball backgrounds," he said. "Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant. I think those qualities you have in basketball—footwork, catching the ball, especially being a goalkeeper, where you slide and you're in a compact position and you're exploding a lot—translates a lot into my game."
The powers-that-be at U.S. Soccer have noticed, too. After stints with the under-20 national team, Johnson got his first call-up with the top-level squad in January 2011. His first appearance came in a friendly against Chile.
"That was a very cool experience for me," he said. "You're excited, you're nervous, you're anxious going out there, but I think I was able to settle down quick and I was fortunate enough to work my way into a role where I could play and get my first cap and every year try to get better and better, which I think I have, and I'm still looking to improve."
Johnson's most significant field time while representing the U.S. came in Olympic qualifiers in March 2012. This year the U.S. is attempting to reach the 2014 World Cup. Will coach Jurgen Klinsmann call his number? Johnson prefers to focus on the Fire.
"Your play dictates how your international career goes," he said. "If you're consistent with your club, you can get opportunities internationally.
"Every single time is a special opportunity for me. It never gets old."
Chris Sosa is RedEye's sports editor. Follow him on Twitter @redeyesportschi.
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