Daniel Johnson’s path to first round pick in Major League Soccer has taken a number of different paths.
It all led to Johnson being selected by the Chicago Fire with the No. 11 pick in Friday’s draft. As Johnson himself said, not many players have an easy path to the pros, but his youth career had a number of key turns.
For starters, Johnson headed to England at 13 years old to train in Premier League team West Ham United’s academy. He spent three years and a half years there, but had to come back to America after work visa issues ended his tenure there. (One of the noticeable things he held onto from his time in England is the way he says Premier League like the English with the short e in the word premier.)
Coaches at West Ham compared him to Joe Cole, who came up with West Ham and had 56 caps with the English national team.
“I learned so much about myself when I went over at 13," Johnson said. "I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did about myself off the field. I was over without parents and had to mature at an alarming rate really to survive and be successful. On the field, it was incredible being in that sort of environment and learn everyday being around pros. Being really a young pro because that’s what it takes to make it there.”
Being a young American in a well-respected Premier League academy and being compared to an English national team player gave Johnson a huge confidence boost. When he had to leave the club, it was a huge setback.
“I felt like I was successful over there and maybe was on track to have that sort of impact or have that sort of opportunity in the Premier League,” Johnson said. “Having that opportunity sort of taken away from me by factors outside of my ability on the field was devastating, honestly. That experience and dealing with that adversity taught me so much about how I deal with adversity and that everyone has a different path to their goals.”
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When it came time for Johnson to pick a college to continue his career, he was now out of the loop. Johnson by his own admission knew “next to nothing” about college soccer, but was being recruited by Division I programs.
His dad was a baseball player at Maryland and his dad’s father also went to Maryland so that became the first school he visited. Johnson knew it was one of the top programs in the country. He met with coach Sasho Cirovski and committed early on.
In two years at Maryland he made just one start, struggling for time on talented teams. Maryland made the national championship game in Johnson’s freshman year in 2013 and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles in his sophomore year.
“He got stuck with a glut of midfielders,” Cirovski said on the league’s draft day broadcast. “Maybe he was a little young. We had some key guys in the midfield. (Current Toronto FC midfielder) Tsubasa Endoh in there and guys that played his position so he couldn’t get up there. We supported his decision to find a new place and he revitalized his career at Louisville.”
Johnson transferred to Louisville, but didn’t hold a grudge. When Johnson stood on the podium at the draft after being selected by the Fire he thanked both Maryland and Louisville.
“I wish I had done a little more research, but it was just a case of me not fitting into the system and a combination of different philosophies that Sasho and I had,” Johnson said. “We had a good relationship, but during my time there we were a really successful program so it’s really hard to make a case for changes, especially someone who is going to come in and really change your style when you’re being successful playing one way.”
Johnson got connected with coach Ken Lolla at Louisville, who Johnson said was focused on development. In two years with the Cardinals, he started all 41 matches and emerged as a pro prospect.
Earlier in his career Johnson had been a central attacking midfielder, calling himself a “10.” Lolla had him play out wide at Louisville. He said it’s been a learning curve to adjust to the position the past two years, but has become comfortable as a winger. His preferred spot is to play on the left wing and cut inside as a right-footed player, but he’s still learning to play both sides.
“I’m comfortable on the wing, playing more of an inverted winger on the left, but also being able to do some of the things that a more traditional winger does if I’m deployed on the right,” Johnson said. “Still working on my left foot and being able to provide those things on the left.”
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Johnson was a stand out at the combine, especially in the first game of the combine. Johnson drew and converted a penalty kick and had two assists in the first half. His draft stock seemed to soar in the week leading up to the draft. The attention Johnson was getting from around the league certainly went up, although general manager Nelson Rodriguez said the Fire had watched Johnson the past two years at Louisville.
“I think a product of combine performance I met with 20 teams so on Wednesday I started at 8 a.m. and skipped both breakfast and lunch and dinner,” Johnson said. “In the meeting process I think the longest time between meetings I had was 15 minutes so they ended up blurring together. Calling my mom that night and sort of giving her the update there were a few teams that stuck out, but Chicago was one that I remembered from the entire meeting.”
Johnson said it was his longest interview of the day.
“He has certain qualities that we think are different from the qualities that we have within the team right now,” Rodriguez said. “We think he can also slide inside and play a central role because he’s good on the ball and he’s a good decision maker.
“He has a real reverence for the game. He’s very descriptive in how he appreciates the game and the artistry of the game.”
Johnson’s winding journey has included two continents and two colleges. He thinks his background and skillset make him rare among young Americans.
“I feel like I am a unique case in terms of young American attacking players, especially being a product of an academy like West Ham and having unique training,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited to just get started and show what I can do.”