Beyond buying beer in bulk and discovering other operational efficiencies, there are occasionally sporting advantages to be found in owning multiple major-league franchises.
So as you might expect, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment rolled out its red carpet when it came to recruiting a new goalkeeper for Toronto FC last month. Coming off back-to-back seasons outside the playoffs, it was an easy decision to sell Sean Johnson on both the team and city with courtside tickets to the Raptors.
While that might have been enough to get the 2021 MLS Cup most valuable player to sign on the dotted line, sometimes the stars just align. So with team president Bill Manning wining and dining Johnson, his girlfriend, Marissa, and his agent at Yorkville’s upscale Ristorante Sotto Sotto later that evening, it was left to Toronto’s most famous rapper to work his own brand of magic.
“Drake showed up to dinner,” Johnson said. “ … My second time meeting him but a terrific guy, a terrific ambassador for the city. You can see from afar, when Toronto is mentioned his name quite often comes up.”
While the meeting was actually a coincidence – Manning said a TFC-supporting waiter connected the dots – it had the desired effect, with the 33-year-old Johnson signing a two-year deal with TFC late last month, leaving New York City FC after six seasons.
Whatever it took to get him here, Toronto FC now has what Manning described as the organization’s “primary target” in-house.
Given the team conceded 66 goals in each of the past two campaigns – both franchise lows – adding a new goalkeeper is a step in the right direction. Though the previous incumbents in goal – Quentin Westberg and Alex Bono shared the duties last year – were not solely to blame for the team’s defensive inadequacies, adding a player who was an all-star in 2022 with 14 clean sheets, good for second in Major League Soccer, can only help.
“As a goalkeeper, you don’t like conceding goals,” Johnson said. “No one likes goals, balls in the back of the net. I take a lot of pride in that.”
His arrival in Toronto not only takes him out of the firing line of the likes of TFC’s star forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi – “I think we were terrified of the players, honestly,” Johnson said – but the American international is reunited with TFC head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley. It was Bradley who gave Johnson his first cap for the United States in 2011 when he was still head coach of that program.
Bradley, who won his only MLS Cup way back in 1998 with the expansion Chicago Fire, is eager to return Toronto to the contending ways in which it reached three MLS Cups in four seasons between 2016-19.
Adding a player such as Johnson – who captained NYCFC the past two seasons – adds yet another voice to Toronto’s stable of leaders. In addition to club captain Michael Bradley, TFC also has Insigne, who captained Italian club Napoli before leaving Serie A, and incoming centre-back Matt Freese, who was the long-time captain of FC Dallas before signing with Toronto in December.
For Bob Bradley, the addition of Johnson keeps TFC moving toward the veteran ideal that he and Manning have been aiming for.
“Everyone that you speak to that has been around him talks about how he brings the level up around him,” Bradley said.
“I think we’ve discussed often in this off-season the need to just continue to get more guys that set the right tone, [who] are winners, come in every day with the right mentality and the right way about them and that is exactly what Sean is all about every day.”
Johnson was part of the U.S. roster that competed in the Qatar World Cup, though he didn’t see a minute of action with Arsenal’s Matt Turner starting all four games.
“It’s great that he got to the World Cup,” Bradley said. “I know that he played a big role inside the team in terms of his experience, his leadership, his wisdom.”
Heading into its 28th season, MLS is at an interesting juncture in its history. For the first time, the league will have a representative in this week’s Club World Cup, with the Seattle Sounders representing this region as the winners of the CONCACAF Champions League. In addition, MLS kicks off its US$2.5-billion Apple TV streaming deal with this campaign, too, with everything beginning to ramp up ahead of the 2026 men’s World Cup, which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
As a competitive guy, Johnson has already set his sights high – it’s one of the reasons he joined TFC – and is focused on making sure Toronto isn’t left out as the league moves forward.
“That culture of success,” he said. “It’s what the club’s had for such a long time and [I’m] looking forward to being a part of that and getting back to a place where we can talk about Toronto being the ones representing the league at a Club World Cup.”