Herriman • He was always fast, a blur, since he was young, trying to get to top-end speed as quickly as possible by sprinting alongside the beach, outrunning the crashing ocean waves. Growing up in Monrovia, Liberia, there were no state-of-the-art facilities Sam Johnson explains standing outside the gym in Real Salt Lake’s state-of-the-art soccer complex. There were no treadmills to increase speed or test durability in distance running.
“I learned my speed from the beach,” he said.
All these years later, it’s impossible to not take notice, because it has stood out in various leagues around the world. YouTube clips show Johnson, Real Salt Lake’s offseason Designated Player signing, running away from defenders who stand no chance once he’s had a step into space. That is just a sliver of what RSL was attracted to during this elongated process of trying to find the right striker to complement one of the deepest and versatile attacking corps in Major League Soccer. Pace and the ability to stretch opposing back lines was a must.
“We wanted something that fit,” RSL general manager Craig Waibel said, “but was different.”
RSL officially signed the 25-year-old Johnson on February 4. MLSSoccer.com reported the deal is a two-year guaranteed contract and added RSL paid a transfer fee of $850,000 to Johnson’s former club in Norway, Valerenga. The process of finding the forward RSL has needed started last summer, Waibel said. The front office started with a vast pool of strikers around the globe. As many as 130 possibilities were explored and from there they started narrowing down the possibilities.
When RSL got down to five, they were each five forwards from around the world that the coaching staff and front office felt like they would’ve been happy landing. Two of the five eventually got really lucrative offers in other countries, which narrowed it down to three.
“What it came down to with Sam was, he was the guy from the get-go that was like, ‘I want to be there. That’s where I want to go,’” Waibel said.
RSL at Houston Dynamo
When • Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
TV • KMYU
So why MLS, and more specifically, why RSL?
Johnson, who has scored 69 career goals in 180 appearances during stops in Liberia, Sweden, Norway and China, said he has always paid close attention to the league. He had opportunities to go back to China and play this year, but instead chose a new path. Since arriving, Johnson admitted it’s been stressful to get used to something brand new all over again. But he knows why he was brought in and why he chose to come.
“The club brought me over for goals, and that’s true,” he explained, “but I’m here to do my best and see how much I can help the club. I’m just an individual. I need my teammates around to me to help me in the process to make this a successful season for the club.”
Being a featured striker brings with it inherent pressures because if you aren’t producing, if you aren’t finding your way on the stat sheet, it’s easy to become a target of fan frustration. RSL’s fan base hasn’t had a consistent center forward to cheer on since the departure of the club’s all-time leading scorer, Alvaro Saborio, nearly four years ago. There have been misses, Waibel conceded, but Johnson, they believe, is the best fit for RSL head coach Mike Petke.
“With Sam, the one thing that I know in my research of him and now seeing him in preseason is that he’s an honest guy, he’s an honest worker, and he has quality — he’s a very unselfish player,” Petke said this week. “I’m not ready to make any statements about Sam Johnson or what he could be, it’s just good that for the first time, I feel like I have a real No. 9.”
Johnson said he played in a similar system in Norway, which he believes will help ease the transition into fitting into what Petke demands of a center forward. Petke said Johnson has had an impressive preseason, despite dealing with an ankle injury for the last week or so. The addition provides more depth, but also something RSL hasn’t had in a long time: a fleet-footed forward who keeps a defense honest. Beyond that, the front office saw a forward who, in their study of him, is a disciplined two-way player, who can pressure defensively but also change the way RSL can play with its myriad of options up front.
The personality fit, too, is what sold RSL. Johnson, those around the club say, is the opposite of a high-maintenance, boastful forward. Despite being a late signing, he didn’t care what jersey numbers were still available. He settled on one some might deem obscure for a forward: No. 50. He’s soft-spoken and would rather have his work on the field be what he’s solely judged upon.
“Above all,” Waibel said, “it was personality and character, mixed with the fact that we knew he could come in and fill a couple different ways to play.”
Said new teammate Damir Kreilach: “The club signed him to score goals and hopefully it will be this year.”
Added Tony Beltran: “He is fast. I’ve also been impressed with his strength. He’s a very strong man. Sam definitely has the physicality to fit into this league.”
Now it’s all up to Johnson to assimilate, to get up to speed, to get fully fit, to go out and do it, show off that blazing speed he possesses and score the kind of goals he’s capable of scoring.
“The time will come,” he said, “and I will get there.”
RSL’S SAM JOHNSON AT A GLANCE
Height » 5-foot-11
Weight » 163 pounds
Position » Forward
Age » 25
Hometown » Monrovia, Liberia
Brought in to produce » The offseason Designated Player signing has 69 career goals in 180 career appearances in leagues in Liberia, Sweden, China and Norway. Johnson is also a member of the Liberian national team.