BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Second-year Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson has looked more confident and more comfortable on the pitch.
Three victories in a four-game stretch also amplify Johnson's success. But even without those results, it has been apparent that Johnson's progression has made significant strides since the start of the season.
"The progression over last year to this year has gotten better, as a player and as a person," Johnson said. "Mentally and physically I've worked on my game, and I think it has been important for me to see different situations. Now I can kind of relate situations into my starting positions and things like that. I can only get better as I keep playing and get older."
Fire goalkeeper Aron Hyde is satisfied in Johnson's recent play. But Hyde is constantly trying to get even more out of the young goalkeeper.
"There's still a long way to go," Hyde said. "We talk about different things over the year -- managing the game, managing himself. His recent performances have been pretty good. He seems a lot better with crosses, and a lot of adjustments are sinking in. I would like to see a little bit more. That's obviously my job. I'm always striving for him to be perfect.
"That perfection is obviously a tall order. Even when he does have a good game, I'm still thinking of things he could do better. Win, lose or draw."
Johnson has put the Fire's April 14 loss to the Portland Timbers behind him. But that 4-2 defeat clearly marked a turning point. Johnson was briefly demoted and veteran Jon Conway was moved up to No. 1.
"People ask me about it countless times, and I just tell them it's part of the game we play," Johnson said. "You have your ups and downs. Luckily I was able to get back in and do the job for our team. It's something you go through as a young player, take away the experience and get better."
"The realization of being a No. 1 and managing all of those sorts of things is not as easy as it might seem," Hyde said. "I think last year is a prime example of how difficult it is for a young guy to step in, with the goalkeepers (Andrew Dykstra and Johnson) we had last year. I think sometimes people need to go through some down times to realize the things that maybe they need to tweak or modify, and maybe that helped him a little bit."
Johnson returned to regular starting duty in league play on May 28 against the San Jose Earthquakes. He has earned the No. 1 spot for good since then, posting six shutouts along the way.
There really is no big secret behind Johnson's improved play. Experience and self-analysis have gone a long way toward his successful run.
"It's always repetition, repetition, repetition -- try to beat it into him," Hyde said. "He's a player that's open to learning and will analyze mistakes and say I could have done this better. He's made those changes, and in the recent run a couple things we have been working on all year are finally starting to sink in. I'm pleased for him in that respect."
Hyde and Johnson have worked together since the start of the 2010 season. Johnson turned into a steal when the Fire selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft in January. The following month, the Fire brought in Hyde to replace previous goalkeeper coach Daryl Shore.
"He's known me since I've come into the league and knows my tendencies on and off the field," Johnson said of Hyde. "We've developed that relationship over a year and a half that's gotten stronger. He pushes me to work hard in training and in games. Next to myself, he's my toughest critic."
While everyone can see the physical body of work, Hyde and Johnson have made the mental aspect of the game a pivotal focal point.
"Aron has done wonders not only on the field but off the field," Johnson said. "There's a mental aspect of the game, as well. Can you be checked in for 90 minutes? What are the things that I need to do to be successful on the field? That's what Aron and I have focused on this year -- making sure that I'm ready to get through 90 minutes and be the best that I can be."
"The one position that is affected by confidence more than anything is the goalkeeper," Hyde said. "Strikers miss open goals, they'll walk off the field and brush it off because they've got that sense of confidence that it doesn't matter -- I'm going to score again. Versus a goalkeeper, there's the direct influence involved. You're constantly working with them, making sure the guys walk off the field and they feel good about themselves. That's definitely important."
As the Fire (5-8-15) try to maintain some sort of run to keep the playoff picture in sight, Chicago has to feel some comfort in Johnson representing the last line of defense.
"I'm very optimistic that he can be very good," Hyde said. "He's got the right attitude and the right approach. It's up to him. It's all about him putting in performances, making saves and helping the team win games. That's what it comes down to at the end of the day."