Real Salt Lake’s biggest move last winter was signing center forward Sam Johnson. The 26 year-old Liberian forward is the first pure center forward since the departure of Álvaro Saborío.
Johnson is fairly low on the Designated Player pay scale, which points to him likely being bought down to the TAM level in future. He joined Real Salt Lake from Norwegian club Vålerenga after having spent a single season there. Johnson has been a journeyman throughout his career, having played with ten teams throughout his career but is a regular with his national.
During preseason training, Johnson picked up a slight ankle injury that prevented him from participating in the team’s preseason matches, but he continued to train. Due to that injury, he did not start a game until 4/7/19 – RSL’s 5th game of the season, which resulted in a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. His early days with the club were a bit strange: he wasn’t starting, he made a comment about his teammates not passing to him, which Mike Petke took issue with publicly, but then things improved for Johnson.
The middle of the season saw Sam Johnson at his most productive. He was starting most games and scored 9 times between the start of May and the middle of August. Johnson only played 1,301 minutes for RSL that year, with 15 starts from 24 games. Damir Kreilach, by comparison, had about twice as many minutes on the field. Johnson did lead the league in goals from shots on goals, scoring 9 times from 13 shots he put on target. The RSL fanbase seemed frustrated with Johnson’s lack of playing time, but new head coach Freddy Juarez told the RSL Show podcast that Johnson had been dealing with a minor injury and wasn’t 100% for the latter stages of the season. His last goal of 2019 came on 8/15/19 (a 3-0 win over the Sounders), despising him playing in another 8 games.
Overall, Johnson’s first season with Real was a success. He contributed meaningful goals and game winners, some of which were absolutely beautiful. He’s able to play with his back to goal like no one else on the team and his speed allows him to blaze past defenders when a ball his been played over the top. He’s a player that needs good service, and it seemed at times playmaker Albert Rusnak would bizarrely refuse to pass to him. Johnson is not the type of player to receive the ball deep, dribble past defenders and score. He needs good service in order to be effective and he didn’t always receive that. He was also much more likely to score when he started rather than subbing on, and 9 of his 24 games played he did not start. That could be a result or more minutes or simply more time to influence the game.
2020 should see Johnson return and, given he stays healthy, see more minutes. It doesn’t seem RSL are in the market for another center forward, but competition at that spot could be a good thing. Damir Kreilach played there with some regularity, but it’s not his natural position. If Juarez wants to build around Johnson, he’s the kind of player that has the potential to score many more goals.