Interview: NYCFC Goalie Sean Johnson Talks High-Intensity Training, the MLS Cup Playoffs, and Why Goalkeepers Love to Be ‘Villains’

Sean Johnson, NYCFC goalie
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Although it was only his first season with the team, New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson made quite the impact in 2017.

The former longtime Chicago Fire keeper was traded to the club in December, and then went on to have one of the best years of his career.

Johnson started 32 games for the team, recording a career-best seven shutouts while finishing with 15 wins, his most since 2012. That performance helped fuel New York City FC to its best performance since starting play in 2015, earning a first-round playoff bye as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

What sparked Johnson to such a successful season? The goalkeeper chalks it up to his intense position-specific training.

“As a goalkeeper, I do a lot of plyometric work, a lot of explosive work, and single-leg workouts in my training,” Johnson tells Men’s Fitness. “In this position, it’s crucial to have strong legs and a powerful lower body, because when you’re making saves, you’re diving off one foot or jumping off one foot. I make sure to focus a lot on my lower body and explosive power.”

He’ll need every ounce of that muscle now, as NYCFC faces an uphill battle to advance to the next round after a 4-1 defeat to the Columbus Crew in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But Johnson is confident the club can put up a fight.

“I think we have a really talented group of players, and we’re going to fight for it,” Johnson says. “It was a tough first leg, but now there has to be a reset button that’s hit. Everybody has to refocus and start turning their focus and energy toward really doing something special in this match. We’re going to compete as hard as we can, and give 100% effort on the field.”

Johnson spoke with Men’s Fitness about how yoga helps keep him healthy, why his training as a goalkeeper is a little bit weird, and his favorite cheat-day meal.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity)

Men’s Fitness: What’s your daily training routine like during the off-season?

Sean Johnson: I typically take a little bit of rest to start. But once I start back up, my days typically consist of a light cardio workout in the morning, going to the gym, and doing some exercises for plyo strength and agility. I incorporate a little bit of yoga into my routine throughout the week just to stay flexible and keep everything moving in the right direction. That’s about three or four times a week.

As a goalie, how does your workout routine differ from other players’?

The focus on core is similar across the board. But each player has a lot more work that is specific to each different type of movement. My teammates are doing a lot more dynamic movement, whereas our work as goalkeepers is a lot more explosive and in short bursts. We’re rarely ever on the long trot, so to speak. When others may have to pass a fitness test, develop hamstring strength, and endurance, we focus more on the strength and explosive aspects.

What’s your favorite part about making a big save? How does it feel when you stop a shot from someone in a big moment?

We goalkeepers like being that villain. We like being that opposing force. You have to have some type of satisfaction in closing an opposing player down and stopping their shot. But I think the most satisfying thing about making a big save is just being able to keep your team in it; you know at any point in the game giving your team the confidence to go forward and really go attack the game and try their best to win it.

Do you like to use any supplements while you’re training?

I haven’t been huge on supplements. I always go with the protein recovery shake or maybe some branched-chain amino acids just to help with muscle recovery. I think it’s the most important thing just to feel at your best always.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career regarding your training?

Just think about what it’s going to take to make your career as long as possible. That’s where yoga, Pilates, and stretching came in. I think those are a big factor in making your career as long as possible.

Do you ever use boxing or MMA training in the off-season? What are some of your favorite cardio and high-intensity workouts to use?

I think high-intensity interval training is important. I’ll do bike sprints, work on a track where I’m sprinting for a little bit, jogging for a little bit—whatever I can do to start-stop-start-stop a lot. Explosion is really what our position is all about. I think that’s one of the fun things. Also, it’s important to incorporate a little bit of longer cardio in to have a base, so sometimes I jog to the gym. It’s probably about a mile and a half away from my house, so I jog to the gym work out and jog back.

What do you enjoy most about being with NYCFC?

Honestly, from the time I have come to this club, I have been welcomed with open arms. I think we have a really talented group of players that has gelled on the field and off the field, which is important. The hunger to win, the hunger for success—that’s apparent in every aspect of this club, whether it’s the coaching staff, the players, or the front office, everybody has the hunger to be the best, and that’s the culture you want to be a part of.

It’s a special feeling to have our fans behind us every single game. It’s tough to describe how much it impacts us as players. The fans are something that we believe propels us every single game to go that last inch, or make that last run or stretch as far as you can to preserve the result.

What are your favorite moments and memories from the season?

I would say the three derby matches we have played against the Red Bulls this season. Having a game of such importance and performing well against them was great. I also think MLS Decision Day was special. It was a good feeling to lock down the second place, and the first-round bye was huge for us.

How does it feel to be in the playoffs? What are your expectations for the team in the postseason?

It feels good to be in the playoffs, it was obviously one of our goals as a club this year to start. We know that it’s a long year, and you want to put yourself in the best position to make the playoffs at the end of the day. We have that opportunity now to achieve something really special. We are not going to take that for granted, and we’re ready. When it comes to the playoffs, you set expectations in what you can control as a team, we expect to go out every single game and compete as hard as we can, give 100% effort, and do all that is necessary to prepare.

What’s your favorite cheat day meal to have when you just want to stuff your face?

I have a really bad sweet tooth, so anything sweet I try to stay away from for the most part. But when I have my opportunity to sit down and dive in, I go with chocolate chip cookies, donuts, you name it if it has sugar in it. Chocolate chip cookies and donuts are my go-tos.

What are some of your favorite off-field activities to do?

One of my favorite things to do off the field is fishing. I love getting out in the water. It’s a peaceful place. You can go out there and just be in your own world for a little bit. Motorsport is another big one—I’m a big fan of racing, so just watching races, going out and experiencing that, and/or just working on my car back home puts me in my happy place outside of the field.

If you could give your younger self training advice, what would it be?

Probably to stay away from the number of sweets I put in when I was younger, when I didn’t believe in cheat meals and cheat meals happened every day [laughs].

No, I would say just learning as much as possible at an early age. As goalkeepers, especially, it’s all about the experiences you take in over the course of your career. That starts before a professional career, in high school. Just taking in every experience and learning from it and putting it in the memory bank.

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