Toronto FC entered the off-season with a pretty specific list of targets.
In some cases it was a position with a list of possible names to fill the role, but at goalkeeper, much like at centre-back with Matt Hedges, there was one name, capitalized, double underlined, with a few exclamation points thrown in for good measure.
“There was one goalkeeper we set as our primary target: Sean Johnson,” said TFC President Bill Manning to kick off the introductory press conference on Wednesday. “When free agency opened up we inquired and were told there's some interest, but he wanted to wait through the World Cup.”
“When [that] ended we had a chance to host Sean and his girlfriend, Marissa, here in Toronto, went to Raptors game, had a nice dinner at Sotto Sotto with he, his agent, Marissa, Jason Hernandez, myself and our wives, had a special guest come over and say hello and tell him a bit about Toronto,” he continued. “It was a great opportunity for him to get the feeling for our city and our club. Bob [Bradley] and he have had a few conversations of how important we see Sean coming in as a leader, not only as a goalkeeper.”
“Drake showed up to dinner; terrific, terrific guy, terrific ambassador to the city. From afar, when Toronto's mentioned his name quite often comes up,” smiled Johnson. “When you talk about a club like Toronto, the history that the club has, to be ingrained in that, meeting different people, the different faces, and really getting that family feel was extremely important.”
“My girlfriend was here as well. It was important for her to feel comfortable and feel like she was also right at home. There was no question in my mind after coming here and spending some time,” he continued. “And she gave the sign off as well, which was all important for me.”
Johnson was drafted by the Chicago Fire in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, playing seven seasons there, before moving to NYCFC where he won an MLS Cup in 2021 and was named MVP of the MLS Cup Final. NYCFC reached the Eastern Conference Finals again last year, falling to the Philadelphia Union.
It came as some surprise that Johnson was open to moving on.
“Change is very normal for players,” he explained. “A lot of times you experience players leaving in bad moments, or moments where they were forced to leave. For me it’s a time in my career where I saw the opportunity. Obviously, happy with my time in New York, spent six years there, very grateful, but it was time to take on a new challenge.”
“It was important for me to be somewhere where I felt wanted and at a club that is positioned to win,” Johnson outlined. “I’m a super competitive guy. I got a taste of what it was like to win an MLS Cup and having the pieces to do that here.”
That visit sealed the deal: “I was able to really see and get on the ground and meet the people at the club, see what the club's about. Getting here in person and getting to the train facility, getting into the city, really getting a feel for what that was like, for me there was no question of where I wanted to be.”
When Johnson’s signing was announced on January 27, it reunited the 33-year-old goalkeeper with the coach that gave him his first senior USA international cap back in 2011.
“I had a chance to work with Sean a little bit in a National Team camp years ago,” opened Bob Bradley. “He was still a young goalkeeper, you could see the potential and it's been great to watch over the years his development as a keeper, but also his leadership, his presence in teams.”
“Everyone that you speak to that has been around him talks about how he brings the level up,” he continued. “We've discussed often in this offseason the need to continue to get more guys that set the right tone, are winners, come in every day with the right mentality and the right way about them, and that is exactly what Sean is all about every day.”
Johnson joins Matt Hedges, Raoul Petretta, Adama Diomande, Tomás Romero, and Victor Vázquez as additions to the roster ahead of the 2023 season.
“[That] was a big part of my decision,” replied Johnson, asked about the club’s off-season moves. “The roster is coming together quite well. Playing against some of these guys over the years, seeing some of the guys that I haven't played against from afar, joining the group, it's a terrific opportunity to be a part of something special.”
Add in the major moves made last season – the additions of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jesús Jiménez – and TFC has quickly transitioned into a new era.
Johnson counts himself lucky to be lining up in red this season.
“We were terrified, honestly,” he smiled. “We know the quality of players, Lorenzo, Federico. From afar, you have these conversations and now coming into an environment where you get to be teammates with those players, you get to experience those things firsthand, and ultimately, come match day, you're now on the same team and looking to get results and do something special with those guys.”
“It's unbelievable opportunity to play with world-class players,” he added. “It's definitely a lot better to be teammates than opposition, that’s for sure.”
Having been on the other side of some of the most epic battles in TFC history, Johnson is looking forward to the season ahead.
“I've seen it up close quite a few times,” he laughed. “Some great battles over the years, some great players.”
“What makes what we do as professionals so exciting is having healthy competition. I'm sure there will be intense battles with my old club moving forward, but you look forward to those challenges, you look forward to the good games, the good battles against opponents that really test you and put you in a position to be exactly where you need to be at the end of the year.”
Tasked with helping to shore up a back-line that conceded too often in 2022, the goalkeeper is eager to confront that head on.
“As a goalkeeper, you don't like conceding goals; no one likes balls in the back of the net. I take a lot of pride in that,” Johnson said. “I’ll do my best to come here and contribute.”
“I put a lot of time and work into my craft and, ultimately, winning is the most important thing for me. Personal success? Great, but if you had an individually great year, who's to say that translates to team success,” he continued. “The goal is winning; that's what I’m here to do.”