Image: Isaiah J. Downing, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
It seems every goalkeeper at San Antonio FC gets a chance to show what they’ve got sooner or later, regardless of their spot in the pecking order, and those who have filled in have a history of doing rather well.
In SAFC’s inaugural season in 2016, it was Matt Cardone who worked hard in training and patiently sat on the bench waiting for his chance. A three-match suspension in July and season-ending injury in August kept regular starter Josh Ford out of the starting lineup later in the season, and Cardone seized his opportunity to shine, showcasing a particular knack for saving penalty kicks.
Following Ford’s retirement, Cardone had the top spot to start 2017 and performed well until picking up an injury and coming off on April 22 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. In his absence, Diego Restrepo has filled in very impressively, including being in net for the entirety of a 672-minute shutout streak the team had spanning from April to June.
However, Restrepo was sent off Saturday night after bringing down Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC forward Kevaughn Frater, who was racing toward goal with only Restrepo in his way. With Restrepo serving a one-match ban and Cardone likely still not fit to return from injury, Lee Johnston seems likely to make his first United Soccer League start this coming Saturday against Sacramento Republic FC – however brief, it’s his time.
Johnston played about 15 minutes Saturday after coming on to fill in for Restrepo. Johnston made a few passes out of the back, saved a shot from Frater when facing him one-on-one and later forced the same attacker to a wide angle from which he couldn’t finish. What Johnston was called upon to do, he did well.
Johnston also played all 90 minutes of SAFC’s US Open Cup clash away to Houston Dutch Lions FC on May 17, conceding one goal off an unfortunate deflection during the hosts’ offensive onslaught in the second half.
As SAFC Goalkeeping Director Juan Lamadrid says, you need a strong mentality to be a goalkeeper, especially one farther down in the established order. Just like all players though, goalkeepers work hard and keep each other on their toes.
“When (SAFC’s goalkeepers) combine their strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis in training, that’s how they push each other,” Lamadrid said.
Johnston has worked with Lamadrid and Cardone since joining the club before the 2016 season, as well as training alongside Ford in 2016 and Restrepo in 2017. While those other goalkeepers have worked hard themselves to stay ahead of him, Johnston said they’ve also helped improve parts of his game, such as his positioning and footwork, which are critical for any goalkeeper.
“Lee’s a very energetic ‘keeper – he’s young, he’s hungry and I think that throughout these couple of seasons, he has enriched his goalkeeper craft (with the help of his fellow goalkeepers),” Lamadrid said. ”He brings a lot of positivity to the team, to the training sessions.”
As of Thursday, SAFC hadn’t brought another goalkeeper into training, so it looks like Johnston will get the nod.
It would be almost silly to bring in a new goalkeeper anyway. Johnston has plenty of experience working with his SAFC teammates in training and just generally interacting with them, and that chemistry means quite a bit given the team-wide commitment to defending. It would be harsh for Johnston to lose out on his opportunity because some MLS goalkeeper is brought in for just a few days.
Johnston said he’s ready if and when called upon. Any player can and will say that, but it arguably means more for goalkeepers, who have to be ready to come on at the drop of a hat because of an injury, red card, etc – the scenario which played out on Saturday.
“I just have to show that I belong here, that I’m more than capable of coming in and doing the job.”
While Johnston doesn’t have the large window of opportunity Cardone or Restrepo had, he’ll make the most of any chance he gets. A good showing on Saturday isn’t likely to snatch the starting spot, but it could definitely push Johnston closer to the top and warrant more opportunities in the future.