Editor’s note: Jason Johnson was selected 13th overall by the Houston Dynamo at the Jan. 17 MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis.
It wasn’t until the eighth grade that VCU’s Jason Johnson first played in an organized soccer game, years after many of his peers. But his career got off to an auspicious start – Johnson scored a goal in that contest. He hasn’t slowed down since.
Earlier this month, Johnson inked his first professional contract with Major League Soccer as part of its Generation Adidas program. Generation Adidas seeks to identify and retain the best college soccer talent in the United States. Players are offered guaranteed multi-year contracts with the league and do not count against a team’s budget or roster limits. Players in the program also receive educational stipends to finish their degrees.
On Jan. 17, Johnson is expected to be one of the top selections in the MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis. Johnson will be the first VCU Soccer player drafted since Dominic Oduro was a second round pick of FC Dallas in 2006. Some rate Johnson as the top forward in this year’s draft. He scored 13 goals this season and a total of 28 in three seasons with the Rams.
“He’s got a unique combination of size, power, strength, speed; his technique is good,” said VCU Soccer coach Dave Giffard. “He strikes the ball well with both feet. He can play in combination. He’s good in the air. I think those qualities together are, they’re not super, super unique, but you don’t see them everywhere. There certainly aren’t many guys in college that have all those qualities.”
For all of Johnson’s soccer skills, and they are considerable, his greatest asset may be his ability to play catch-up. The 22-year-old Johnson grew up in the small inland village of Happy News, Jamaica. Although soccer is popular on the island, the school Johnson attended as a young boy did not offer the sport, so he played cricket and ran track.
It wasn’t until Johnson’s older brother, Kemar – an avid soccer player and fan – turned Jason onto the game that he considered taking it up seriously. In the eighth grade he joined the team at his high school, Knox College. He fell in love with the game almost immediately.
“When I was on the field, I had a different feeling,” Johnson said. “It was like I was just having pure fun. Nothing to worry about, no matter what happened off the field. When I was on the field everything was blank; just fun, pure fun.”
Although the game came quickly to Johnson, he was years behind many of his peers. For that reason, he said he didn’t initially consider where the game could eventually take him.
“I didn’t even know I could make it because I started so late, and after seeing that a lot of kids start at age six, age seven I was like, whoa, this is late, I might never make it,” Johnson said.
But even if Johnson was unsure of his abilities, others were not. Observers recognized his potential.
“While playing through my first high school back at home with the guys, everybody was just saying, ‘yo, you can play, man,’” Johnson recalls. “I listened to my brother so much, and he told me, ‘yo, you can really plan, man.’ That was what really caught me. That set it [in motion].”
Inspired, Johnson sought every available opportunity to play soccer and improve his game. He played on the weekends. He played all summer. Mornings, evenings, it didn’t matter. By the time he moved onto Manchester High School for his final prep year, he was catching the attention of others on the island.
At the Schoolboys Championships, Jamaican National Team Coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore, scouting for young talent, took notice of Johnson and invited him and a number of other players to camp. Johnson didn’t expect to have any shot of making the team, but was proven wrong. Whitmore added Johnson to his roster for a match against Argentina on Feb. 10, 2010. Johnson assumed he was just there to fill out the roster, but late in the game, Whitmore told him to warm up.
“I heard Toppa call my name, but I wasn’t sure,” Johnson said. “When he said, ‘J.J.’, everything went blank. I didn’t even have my shinguards in.”
Although he played the waning moments of the game, Johnson’s future with the national team and beyond was clear.
Giffard was among a number of college coaches who learned of the dynamic, albeit late-blooming striker. He had recently accepted the VCU job and was in the midst of assembling an 18-player recruiting class to begin overhauling the program. The Rams weren’t necessarily the most attractive suitor. They were coming off a 5-10-2 season and hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2005. But Johnson saw the Rams much like himself, an unfinished product with unlimited potential.
“He had a plan, and I had a dream, and the plan and the dream had the same direction, so it was really good to work with. It’s easy to work with someone who wants the same outcome as you want,” Johnson said. “He just came straight and told me what he wanted to do and what he thought he wanted my accomplishments to be, so they were similar so it was easy to make that decision.”
“When we sat down and met with those guys, I sold them on what our dream was, what was going to happen here, what we were doing, and what we wanted them to come be a part of it, and we wanted them to come and develop and grow together,” Giffard said.
Johnson didn’t enjoy immediate success at VCU. The college game differed from Jamaica, as did life in general. Despite his considerable ability, Johnson was not a starter as a freshman.
“It wasn’t any doubt that I had the talent, but the transition from a different environment, it took longer than it should, which was mostly my fault,” he said. “I think I settled in too much. I was too comfortable.”
Johnson needed to work harder, and he knew it. By his sophomore year he earned his way into the starting lineup and led the Rams in scoring with 11 goals. He followed with 13 more, as well as six assists, in 2012 as VCU reached the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship match and returned to the NCAA Tournament.
This fall, it was already clear to Giffard that Johnson was MLS-ready and would likely be a Generation Adidas target. Giffard coached and recruited six previous Generation Adidas players as an assistant at Akron. He knew top-end ability when he saw it.
Giffard also knows that means Johnson’s ceiling is higher than the MLS. The best soccer leagues in the world are still in Europe, and the VCU Coach believes Johnson has a future there, if he wants it bad enough.
“MLS is not the top of his potential,” he said. “We’ll see how it all works out. He has to go out and go do it. We certainly feel that there could be a step beyond that for him. Time will tell. Potential is just that. It doesn’t mean anything until you do it, but not everybody has it, and Jay certainly does have it.”
After a late introduction to soccer, Giffard thinks Johnson is just scratching the surface of his true potential.
“Jason would be the quintessential diamond in the rough,” Giffard said. “He’s a guy who, his best days are well ahead of him, and I don’t know that there will be a cap on how far he could go.”