University of Central Florida men's soccer coach Bryan Cunningham remembers the first time he saw Sean Johnson in the school's weight room.
Johnson was learning to do leg squats with a low weight, maybe 50 pounds, Cunningham recalled.
"He literally almost fell over doing the squats," Cunningham said, chuckling at the memory.
But the story is instructive of how Johnson, now a 21-year-old rookie, became the Fire's starting goalkeeper just six months after being drafted as a fourth-round "project."
"The kid is just so committed that by the end of that spring he was squatting 350 pounds like nobody's business," Cunningham said of his first recruit at UCF. It's part of Johnson's "commitment to being the best at everything."
"I just try to work hard," Johnson said. "What round you're drafted in really doesn't matter as long as you come out every single day and try to work hard and try to prove to the coaches that you want to play. Just giving them the sense that you're hungry for it, coming out and giving 100 percent every day."
Since replacing Andrew Dykstra in the starting lineup, Johnson has allowed just 2 goals - both on Landon Donovan penalty kicks - in two games and twice won the MLS save of the week award. Those saves show the 6-foot-3, 217-pounder's outstanding athletic ability, but Cunningham sees more.
"I love watching these saves that he's making because that's all the work he's done in the gym and cleaning up his technique," said Cunningham, who visited Toyota Park in May to see Johnson's first start, against Paris St.-Germain in the Sister Cities Cup, and regularly keeps in touch with his prize pupil. "That's a real showpiece."
"Since preseason he keeps on getting better and better," added Fire goalkeepers coach Aron Hyde, who played at Judson College in Elgin. "He's come on well since the Paris St.-Germain game. It's not easy because there's no games to play (as a reserve), so it's not easy to step out there in front of a crowd when it matters, especially against that team coming of their season. So he's doing well. He's making the right steps forward. The test now becomes, can he keep it going?"
If Johnson's head is spinning from the speed with which he's seen his role on the club change, it doesn't show. Off the field he speaks confidently, intelligently and matter-of-factly. He credits the veterans on his back line for their help. He speaks of the work yet to be done, the games yet to be won.
It reminds Cunningham of Johnson's freshman year at UCF, when the senior starter tore up his shoulder and Johnson was thrown into the lineup.
"There was no ifs, ands or buts," Cunningham said. "You've got to roll with the punches and be confident from the get-go, and he's carried that over."
Johnson added confidence during his time last year with the U-20 national team, which caused him to miss his junior season at UCF. He learned to see the whole field and to communicate with his back line. Even with the veteran defenders the Fire has, Johnson isn't intimidated into silence.
"He's got Wilman Conde and C.J. Brown in front of him, but you can't tell who's been in the league seven, eight, nine, 10 years and who's been in the league 31/2 months," Cunningham said. "Just in talking to him, I think his self-confidence has grown tremendously just from the night we saw him play PSG."
Cunningham has seen the most improvement this season in Johnson's ability to distribute the ball with either foot.
But it's clear Cunningham's respect for Johnson extends beyond the soccer field, citing Johnson's humility and intelligence. Johnson left UCF after his junior year with a GPA above 3.5 to become a Generation adidas signee with MLS.
"If my daughter came home and told me she was marrying Sean Johnson, I'd be a happy dad, because he's a great kid," Cunningham said.
In the last few weeks the Fire has added veteran internationals Nery Castillo, Freddie Ljungberg and Gonzalo Segares, but the club's best addition might turn out to be the kid who spent the first half of the season at the end of the Fire's bench.
Coming to Chicago: There are rumors the U.S. national team will play a friendly at Soldier Field on Oct. 9 against Poland. An announcement is expected soon.