Sam Johnson’s first week with Real Salt Lake was one filled with meeting new teammates, learning RSL’s system and hours on the training field. Along with those elements also came many, many airmiles.
First, he traveled from Oslo, Norway, where he had been playing with Valerenga until his recent transfer, to Salt Lake City. Arriving on Sunday, he toured RSL’s stadium and facilities before departing on Tuesday for warmer climes in Honolulu, Hawaii, for the next leg of training camp and the Pacific Rim Cup.
So how did he feel about his first week in camp with his new club after traveling over 7,700 airmiles in the days before his first training session?
“I’ve been finding it very hard to sleep,” the Liberian forward laughed.
While reluctant to heap too much praise on the club’s newest signing, Head Coach Mike Petke was enthused at the early returns despite his well-traveled legs.
“He’s flown halfway across the world and then flew seven hours more. What we’ve seen, we like. It’s started the road of justifying to ourselves that we made the right decision,” Petke said. “His workrate, his defensive positioning and ability, his pressure, his runs and his pace all showed what we’ve already learned and we’ve seen. We’ll see in a month or two.”
Johnson, 25, comes to RSL after a comprehensive search for a player that fits Real Salt Lake’s playing style and locker room mentality, while also fitting into the club’s budget. The resulting search brought back many names, but Johnson was the one deemed the best fit by the collective minds in charge of bringing in players to help the club succeed on the field.
As speedy and tenacious as he is on the field, Johnson is equally humble off of it, a key factor for General Manager Craig Waibel.
“He brings a level of athleticism that we think translates pretty well. The biggest one over the course of the process was his humility,” Waibel explained. “It’s a position that can at times be accompanied by a massive amount of confidence bordering on arrogance, around the world. One thing we wanted to focus on was the humility of the person we were going to bring in to help us up top.”
When RSL came calling, Johnson knew very little about the league. So he turned to three teammates at Valerenga who had played in MLS before – former Portland Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, former Vancouver Whitecaps FC defender Sam Adekugbe and onetime Columbus Crew SC midfielder Mohammed Abu. They all had the same encouraging response – there would be an adjustment to the travel and the size of the defenders, but that it was a place that Johnson could succeed.
In his first days with the club, he showed many of his qualities that first attracted Waibel and his staff. He also saw in his teammates one of the qualities that makes RSL a special club.
“This is a team that is a family,” the soft-spoken striker said. “They welcomed me and it was good.”
On the field, his credentials speak for themselves.
Everywhere he has gone, he has scored goals, whether it be in Liberia, Sweden, China or Norway, where he led Valerenga and ranked sixth in the league with 11 goals in 21 matches in 2018.
He has succeeded with speed and a goal-scorers mentality, but also has other qualities on the field that made him an attractive piece to what RSL has been building in recent years, surrounding young academy products with experienced talent that can produce all over the field. The recent additions of Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino and Damir Kreilach all fit the mold and Johnson has the capability of not only adding a new dynamic to the attack, but in combining with those types of players to help open the field even more for a group that scores from all angles on the field.
“The way we play with one striker for a lot of the game, we’re looking at his ability to get behind defenses with his timed runs, but also his ability to hold up and combine,” Petke said. “We have such talented players behind that line with the ball at their feet so we need someone who can connect with them. Then in a forward we want a bit of pace and goal-scoring ability.”
Last year, RSL got 20 goals combined from Kreilach and Corey Baird, who turned into Petke’s primary contributors as strikers, although it isn’t the natural position for either player. Now with Johnson in tow, RSL has more options throughout the attack. And after making a run to the Western Conference Semifinals in 2018, the hope is that he can help elevate Salt Lake into another echelon in 2019.
“We have players who think fast, who are mentally good. There is a lot of great talent in Salt Lake,” Johnson said. “I’m here and focused on helping the team. I will do my best and work along with the coaches and players and through the help of my teammates, I think we can make Salt Lake a good team this year.”
Real Salt Lake just completed the third week of preseason training camp in Honolulu and enters the final stretch with two weeks in Tucson, Arizona. The season kicks off on March 2 on the road against the Houston Dynamo.