Daniel Johnson surprised by ‘extremely surreal' Fire debut


After a couple false alarms, Daniel Johnson didn't want to tell his dad to travel for a game again.

The Chicago Fire rookie midfielder didn't play in the first three games of the season. His dad had traveled to the first two games, hoping to see his son make his professional debut, but Johnson was not among the list of substitutes in either game.

Johnson was an available sub for the third game in Atlanta, Johnson's hometown, but did not play.

"I said, 'You know Dad I felt like I had a really good week of training. I think I'll be in the 18,'" Johnson said. "I wasn't. He came to town twice. It was like the boy who cried wolf so I said, 'You know Dad I'm not sure. Hold off.' Of course it's the week I make my debut."

Johnson got his MLS debut in Saturday's 2-2 draw against Montreal. He replaced Michael de Leeuw, who had subbed on earlier but had to leave after suffering a gash on his left hand, in the 79th minute.

After a few weeks of waiting, the debut came as a surprise to Johnson. He didn't know he was going to be in the matchday 18 until the day before the game.

An unusual series of events led to Johnson entering the match. The Fire were down to 10 men after Juninho picked up his second yellow card. Then de Leeuw's injury meant coach Veljko Paunovic was looking for another attack-minded player in a tie game.

"I didn't think he would make another sub actually, just because we went down to 10 and we really wanted to lock the game in and preserve the point," Johnson said. "When he called my name it was just extremely surreal.

"It's a great moment. It's one that I'll never forget."

Paunovic said Johnson had a good preseason, but needed some adjustment time once the season started and the team returned to Chicago.

"He needed to build his own world in a new city and it took him some time," Paunovic said. "In the last couple of weeks he was doing very well and obviously he earned the trust and the spot on the field. The circumstances were like they were and we gave him the opportunity.

"He's building very well. We believe in the future he can do even better and earn the starting role, but we'll see."

Johnson spent some of his teenage years in the academy of Premier League club West Ham before playing collegiately at Maryland and then Louisville. The Fire drafted him No. 11 overall. On Saturday, he made an impression with a couple flashes of his quickness and dribbling ability.

"I felt really good about the performance and the guys in the locker room were really complimentary so it was a real positive," Johnson said.

Not only was Johnson making his professional debut, but the match was also the Fire debut of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Instead of being nervous to play alongside the World Cup winner, Johnson said it made things easier.

"It really put me at ease knowing that Dax (McCarty) and Basti were next to me in midfield and knowing that finding those guys and combining with those guys, nine times out of 10 they're going to do the right thing with the ball," Johnson said. "If I make a run they'll find me, if I find them with the ball they'll find the right pass so it really put me at ease and took a lot of the nerves away being next to guys who just have so much class."

It doesn't take long after speaking with Johnson to notice how he thinks about the game. Paunovic said his love of the game is part of what drew the Fire to draft him.

"He's very passionate and loves the game and that's what we are looking for," Paunovic said. "Now it comes to how we work with him, how we prepare him, how we give him the tools so he can perform at the highest level in MLS. We knew that he is very well educated, very thoughtful and he's a student of the game."

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