A View from Afar / Commentary

Sean Johnson shows what the Union are missing

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Sean Johnson showed Sunday exactly what Philadelphia Union have been missing.

For about eight minutes late in Philadelphia’s 3-3 draw with the Chicago Fire, the Chicago goalkeeper saved his team with perhaps the best goalkeeping performance ever witnessed at PPL Park. His string of saves from the 81st to the 88th minute should all hit the highlight reels, perhaps none more than his superhuman stop of Richie Marquez’s point blank header on goal.

It was the type of performance where, even if you were rooting for the Union, you had to step back, take a deep breath, smile and say, “Wow.” As one Union fan put it:

I’ve watched / played a lot of soccer in my life as a fan, a participant, and as a coach. The 7 minute stretch that Sean Johnson pulled off from minute 81 to minute 88 was the best short stretch of goalkeeping that I’ve ever seen. Period. At a minimum, 4 or 5 of those 6 shots should have been goals (the one save was a rebound off the Marquez header). There is no hyperbole here. Each save was incredible, and collectively, that performance was beyond astounding.

A goalkeeper like Johnson is what the Union have been missing for some time now, someone who can singlehandedly earn you points in the standings. You might say that goalkeepers like Johnson don’t come along that often, but guess what? If you pay enough, scout well, and choose wisely, you can find one. Johnson makes less than Rais Mbolhi.

Union goalkeeper jokes will probably bounce around for a few more years — and certainly as long as Mbolhi is around — but this isn’t even a joke. It was a clear demonstration of the difference a top goalkeeper can make.

This isn’t to bash Brian Sylvestre or John McCarthy. (Mbolhi is another story.) Each has stepped up for the Union this season at times. Sylvestre has been quality in goal and has surely earned a roster spot for next season. McCarthy has come up big in the U.S. Open Cup, although he left plenty to criticize in Sunday’s performance, regardless of whether the refs and his defense let him down. Both are young. Both have time.

But where is the big-time shot-stopper who will save you a game today? Is he sitting on the Union bench?

We still don’t know what the Union have in last year’s No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick, Andre Blake. He has demonstrated high-level shot-stopping in limited play, but he has yet to see the field for the Union this season. It’s time that he does.

Blake needs to get some starts, even if only for player evaluation purposes at this point. And for other purposes, like he could actually help his team win games if he is as good as he has seemed to be when we’ve actually seen him play. We often hear coaches — including Jim Curtin — say things like, “I play the guys who are the best in practice,” when asked why a particular player isn’t starting. There is some merit to that — some. But like Allen Iverson said — and it’s amazing that I have reason yet again to share this classic Philly sports clip — there’s something to be said for a guy who might be the best player, period.

The Union have three young goalkeepers, and if Blake isn’t next year’s starter, then only two of them should be on the roster next year. Whoever the third goalkeeper is next year needs to be a proven veteran who can win games, blend well with the team, and coordinate a defense.

End the jokes. Get a Sean Johnson.

Other Union notes
  • A Union USL affiliate in Bethlehem: It’s expected that the Union will announce on Wednesday a new USL PRO affiliate to begin play next year in the Lehigh Valley, probably at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. If so, it’s a great choice. Bethlehem is closer than Harrisburg to Chester, making it easier to pull off joint practices with the Union in Chester or at YSC Sports in Wayne and bounce players back and forth on loan. Also, the Lehigh Valley’s larger population should draw more fans to games, which will probably be played at Lehigh University in South Bethlehem. More on this once the announcement is made.
  • Another U.S. Open Cup final: An unfortunate side effect of writing a Tuesday column is that it runs just before U.S. Open Cup games, which are often played on Tuesdays. So there’s a delayed reaction here to the Union’s big cup win last week, and it’s tempered by the recognition that the club dropped needed points Sunday night to Chicago. But that shouldn’t diminish the cup victory. The Union’s season now basically rides on that final at PPL Park against Sporting Kansas City. The Union will be underdogs, but they’ve picked up improbable wins over Kansas City before.
  • Sebastien Le Toux is on one of his streaks: Le Toux has scored in four of his last five games. Usually, that translates to wins for the Union, but thus far, the Union are 1-2-2 over that stretch. But if he keeps this up, it means the Union finally have a second reliable scorer (behind C.J. Sapong) back on the field.
  • When did you realize the Union would not win Sunday night? I realized it probably 45 seconds before the third Chicago goal. Seeing the pace of play, the thought somehow emerged: “They’re going to give up a goal. It is known.” It didn’t matter how they did it, whether it was a Chicago screamer or a ref missing a series of calls on the same play. That goal was on its way. When you follow any Philadelphia sports team for long enough, you learn these things. As Union fans have begun to say, that was so Union.


  1. I agree regarding Blake. Some here on these pages and Jim Curtin has even alluded to the fact that he must not be practicing well therefore not earning a right to play…

    ….but if you practiced hitting 9 irons for a year straight yet never once went to play a round of golf do you think you would really improve playing golf or even enjoy hitting 9 irons anymore?
    Andre Blake has not played…..AT ALL….in how long? When were his last meaningful minutes? He’s not in Harrisburgh. It is an out and out abomination.
    Could be game action is EXACTLY what he is missing in his development.
    But what do I know…I’m a hack….a hack who is as dead certain, as possible as can be, Andre Blake has a ceiling 29 stories above John McCarthy’s.

    • With all due respect to all “Blake Must Play” proponents, I must strongly disagree, based on one factor alone that Blake has little control over: his physical makeup.
      Stand Blake sideways in a lineup of Sean Johnson, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Faryd Mondragon and, by comparison, he will disappear. He may be marvelously agile, fleet of foot, have the hands of a magician and the brains of a soccer Einstein, but there is a reason why well-muscled GK’s dominate in the top ranks: durability.
      The position requires frequent hard contact with the ground, opponents, fellow players and even goalposts (cf: Pete Pappas). When I look at Blake, I see limbs more likely to break than to survive impact. Maybe he can muscle up, but that will be several years and too many injuries from now. We should not have to wait that long.
      The loan is withering MacMath’s development. Our other options are young, promising and require patience and the guiding hands of an accomplished GK coach. Do we possess any of those attributes?

      • el pachyderm says:

        I responded to this in your other post….but will do again.
        It is my opinion that if Andre Blake hasn’t put on 10lb of muscle since being drafted 2 seasons ago then that further indicts the Union for mishandling him.
        Feed him 4000k a day and bust his ass in the gym. Problem solved.

  2. I lay claim to ‘So Union’ as mine….all mine…cue evil laugh, cauldron and hand wringing.

  3. If only a game was played over a handful of minutes.
    Keep in mind that he also let in 3 goals, so it’s not like Johnson was this unstoppable force between the pipes.

    • That’s exactly what he was for a period of time. That was the point. He’s also a good GK overall. And he earned his team a point. That last point is the premise of the column.

  4. am i to understand McCarthy is getting starts over anyone esle as a lead up to the Open Cup Final? Sunday i’d have liked to seen Blake, rest McC, and later, in Sept, play McC


  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Thank you, Dan Walsh, for noticing “pace of play.” It jumped off the field at me almost from the opening whistle. I have fulminated earlier about conditioning in previous comments on other articles.
    Right now my mind mulls over the words leadership on the field. I sit too high up for any sense of the verbalization within the team, I can only see gestures and body language. All of you who have coached know that in-game leadership from a coach on the sidelines is not supposed to exist in soccer, contrary to the cranial muscle headaches I used to get in my earliest years from trying. So we are talking about leadership on the pitch among the players.
    Given the limitations on my observations noted above, Mondragon is hands down the best on-field leader ever to play here. He is the only one whose skills included the ability to lead the Sons of Ben, for one. For two, he finished at least one game on one leg, covering “by example from the front.” For three, to insult the beautiful game by using an analogy from American football, he quarter backed the defense. (Sakeiwicz, a goalkeeper, has been searching for such a quarterback ever since.). Four, you could see his own intensity, both the heartfelt enthusiasm of his praise and enthusiasm, and the demanding fury of his ass-chewing when you had failed to do and give your best physically and mentally. Five, when he made a mistake he immediately acknowledged responsibility for it.
    The thought that follows is most thoroughly personal and subjective, for which I beg the tolerant forgiveness of colleagues in the pursuit of soccer truth. Since Mondragon no one player has embodied as many of the strands of on-field leadership into himself as did Mondragon. They have all been present, but in combination. The descriptive analysis thereof would be a long twisting distraction from my point, tempting as it is pursue.

    Since Mondragon, the chemistry of squad leadership has been collective. For entirely proper reasons of injury and injury risk, too many elements of that leadership chemistry were off the field Sunday night. McCarthy is courageous and decisive but he’s too often wrong to be that charismatic leader now. Richie Marquez is taking bounding strides in establishing himself as an MLS center back, but the leadership chemistry starts being brewed in January, not August. Ray Gaddis concentrates on doing his job and being a good teammate,, which is what lent so much force to his chewing Mbohli’s ass in KC last spring. Fabinho may not have a leader’s gravitas, perhaps.
    Brian Carroll seems a quiet leader by example; clearly management like what he brings to team chemistry. It was Warren Creavalle’s first start and tenth calendar day, not practice day, with the club. Chaco focuses on creating play and running but probably is still not confident enough in his language command for more than his example. Eric Ayuk is still learning everything, including, I hope, English. Barnetta is present longer than Creavalle only slightly. Aristiguieta, language, injury absence, and a striker’s narrower focus on scoring.
    A remark I cannot resist even though it is tangential to my point, post game Jim Curtin’s referred to Maurice Edu as having a partially torn groin when he played Wednesday. He’s not the multilingual Colombian , but he’s growing.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      OSC – While the Union lack maturity and leadership on the pitch, don’t you think that the conditioning issue also pertains to their inability to retain possession of the ball when they need to? So many teams keep the ball not only to continue to probe and frustrate the other team, they also do it because it allows the team to catch their collective breath and recover physically. The Union have been able to do it in glimpses this season which allowed them to effectively kill the game off, but are unable to do it on a consistent basis which has cost them valuable points.

      Dan – If Blake continues to sit on the bench, does that mean that he will likely retain his GA status for next year? If that’s the case, I don’t think that we’ll see him at all this year as keeping his salary off the cap helps the FO use those dollars somewhere else.

      • That occurred to me too, and I maybe should have included it in the post. But yes, that is exactly the case. He almost certainly would remain on the GA rolls and therefore off the salary books.

        That said, he might also remain GA if he started the rest of the season, as it’s only 9 games. There is precedent for that, particularly for goalkeepers. (I don’t recall who at the moment — might be Stefan Frei.)

      • el pachyderm says:

        I think the conditioning issue partly comes back to the mission statement I wrote in the game wrap up…. they play a frenetic style and run way more than a soccer team should.

    • Interesting take on the leadership situation. It’s not crystal clear like it was in the days of Mondragon, but my impression is that Edu has grown into that role and is a decent one, even if less natural for him than it was for Faryd. This year has also really solidified my respect for BC too. He just competes, says the right things, and has been a really good all around player and citizen for this team since day one.

      If those two are out of the lineup, who’s the captain? LeToux if he starts? Williams was an option, but that ended abruptly. It’s an interesting question, as there aren’t many with the right combination of experience, relatively steady impact (or at least starts), comfort with English, and leadership traits.

  7. One wonders if we might have our own Sean Johnson by now with Zac MacMath…

    • Probably not. But I suspect he would have lept out at one of those crosses that lead to Chicagos goals. Mght have gotten a hand on it too.

    • Not with the impatience this FO shows. Chicago gave Johnson time to grow into this role, and learn from lots of mistakes. Anyone remember this game (FF to the 4:00 mark is you’re impatient)? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBj3Vi_VzzU

    • I wondered it too, but I’ve treated him as gone permanently. He’s not, on paper at least, and he obviously could return, but I do treat him as out of the picture until I see him return.

  8. Makes you long for the days of MacMath and Konopka:)
    I actually turned to my buddy during the game and said ‘we’re going to remember this as the Sean Johnson game’. It was a rare display in MLS.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    I don’t want to say we’re unlucky or snake bit or whatever… cause we all know the problems are not surface deep… but the Union got royally screwed Sunday night… first by Sean Johnson (heck of a performance), and then by Geiger and his crew. I actually thought they did enough to win… given the constant pressure they had created… it was like they deserved it. Just so Union…

  10. Better Acronym for the Team says:

    With all due respect to WSSM, it’s time to replace those letters with JSU until ownership changes either its people or behavior (yeah, sure). JSU is a much fairer representation of the problems with the organization.

  11. OSC got it right and typically does there is a big lack on this team in leadership. And Mondragon was the one and only leader we had on this team that covered all the on field leadership and locker room presence. The one thing to note that this organization never realizes as well is who was here when Mondragon was in goal. Who learned from him. The one goalkeeper this organization continues to alienate….MacMath. We keep talking about younger keeper after younger keeper well MacMath is younger then Blake more experienced, better then both McCarthy and Sylvestre and he was improving. Every season I think I saw MacMath play he improved and I can’t say the same for the quality of his starting backline. He knows how to organize a defense and personally I think he could’ve grown into a role as a leader. However, that will never happen now so what we need is Mondragon #2 and only someone of his caliber can get this team organized cause I just don’t see any capable leadership on the roster. Maybe in a year or 2 Barnetta can take over that leadership, but not yet.

  12. “When did you realize the Union would not win Sunday night?”. As soon as Chicago kicked off after the third goal, and I realized we hadn’t had The Geiger Show yet.

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