Fire GK review: Sean's house no more?

This past February the Chicago Fire signed goal keeper Matt Lampson after a preseason trial run. On the surface it seemed that he would be a player that would push incumbent starter Sean Johnson in training and get the occasional Open Cup start or fill in due to injury or national team call up. In a release announcing the addition to the roster, Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez is quoted saying “Matt has proven himself as a winning goalkeeper in MLS. His character, work ethic and resiliency are all important additions to our team and reflective of what our club values.” None of that is out of the ordinary when it comes to press releases and Rodriguez has been enthusiastic and politically correct with every announcement, whether it be an addition or subtraction.

However, for a player who made three appearances in his first professional year with Columbus, thirteen in his second due to a lengthy shoulder injury to Andy Gruenebaum, and then zero appearances for the Crew over the next two seasons, highlighted by loan spells to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and the Charlotte Independence, the enthusiasm seemed a little overzealous. Lampson made seven total appearances over the course of the loans. Considering that a player that struggled to get minutes in the USL was touted as a “winning goalkeeper” and Gregg Berhalter isn’t one to let talent walk out of his door, it came as a surprise to many that Lampson was named the starter for the opening match.

Wrist injury aside, some fans have voiced frustration over the lack of game time afforded to Sean Johnson, a season total of zero minutes, but there have been equally as many shouts of “We Love Lamps” in the stands. Setting personal allegiances aside when taking an objective look at what led to the decision to start Lampson over Johnson, one start with an analysis of the numbers and recent performances for each player. The totals below provide a statistical analysis of both goalkeepers in their last six matches played as well as an evaluation of their performances and goals against. It should provide a constructive framework for further discussion.

Matt Lampson’s last six matches


NYCFC Home: 20 attempts at distributions, 7 successful and 13 unsuccessful.

Orlando Away: 15 attempted distributions, 12 successful and 3 unsuccessful.

Columbus Home: 12 attempted distributions, 9 successful and 3 unsuccessful.

Philadelphia Home: 17 attempted distributions, 14 successful and 3 unsuccessful.

NYCFC Away: 15 attempted distributions, 7 successful and 8 unsuccessful.

Montreal Home: 14 attempted distributions, 5 successful and 9 unsuccessful.

Totals: 93 total attempts, 54 successful, 39 unsuccessful. 58% of his pass attempts find their mark.

Goals against:

7 goals given up in six matches, 1.16 goals per game, no PKs, no OGs.

NYCFC Home: 10 shots on target, 4 goals against. 5 shots in the box, 5 shots outside. 2 goals from inside the box, 1 outside.

Orlando Away: 5 shots on target, 1 goal against. 3 shots in the box, 2 shots outside. 1 goal from inside the box.

Columbus Home: 4 shots on target, 0 goals against. 4 shots outside of the box.

Philadelphia Home: 4 shots on target, 0 goals against. 3 shots in the box, 1 shot outside.

NYCFC Away: 8 shots on target, 0 goals against. 2 shots inside the box, 6 shots outside.

Montreal Home: 7 shots on target, 2 goals against. 5 shots inside the box, 2 shots outside. 1 goal from inside the box, one goal outside.

Totals: 38 total shots on target, 7 goals given up, one goal given up every 5.42 shots on target.

Sean Johnson’s last six matches


Orlando Away: 19 attempted distributions, 9 successful 10 unsuccessful.

NYRB Home: 19 attempted distributions, 8 successful and 11 unsuccessful.

Colorado Away: 20 attempted distributions, 18 successful and 2 unsuccessful.

Philadelphia Away: 16 attempted distributions, 7 successful and 9 unsuccessful.

Portland Away: 16 attempted distributions, 6 successful and 10 unsuccessful.

Dallas Home: 16 attempted distributions, 7 successful and 9 unsuccessful.

Totals: 106 total attempts, 55 successful and 51 unsuccessful. 52% of his passes find their mark.

Goals against:

8 goals given up in 6 matches. 1.33 goals per game, 1 PK, 1 OG.

Orlando Away: 2 shots on target, 1 goal against. 2 shots outside of the box. 1 OG in the box.

NYRB Home: 2 shots on target, 2 goals against. 2 shots in the box, 2 goals in the box.

Colorado Away: 2 shots on target, 1 goal against. 1 shot in the box, 1 shot outside. 1 goal in the box.

Philadelphia Away: 11 shots on target, 3 goals against. 6 shots inside the box, 5 shots outside. 2 goals in the box, 1 goal outside.

Portland Away: 2 shots on target, 1 goal against. 1 shot inside the box, 1 shot outside. 1 goal inside the box.

Dallas Home: 3 shots on target, 0 goals against. 2 shots inside the box, 1 shot outside.

Totals: 20 shots on target, 8 goals against, one goal given up every 2.5 shots on target.


Statistics cannot often speak on their own and a bit of context and analysis is needed. Taking a closer look at each of their goals against will shed some light on positioning, save ability, and defensive organization.

Johnson’s goals against:

Orlando: An Eric Gehrig own goal was the only thing that separated Chicago from three points in this one. Upon closer examination however, Johnson’s positioning could have saved Gehrig’s blushes. He makes it to the seven yard mark before an unfortunate bounce off of Gehrig’s head takes it into the net. He didn’t come far enough to punch but came too far to see the ball safely into his gloves so Johnson bears some of the blame.

NYRB: No blame can be laid on Johnson for the opening Red Bulls goal. A seemingly harmless scuffle in the box led to a Red Bulls PK and he guessed correctly on the spot kick but Sascha Kljestan put it just out of reach. The second goal scored by Red Bull was the infamous free kick that was never played out of the corner circle. Everyone was caught off guard and didn’t pick up their marks before Ronald Zubar tucked in a nifty finish. The second goal should not have counted and Johnson can’t be blamed for either of the two scores.

Colorado: In what was one of the quickest goals of the 2015 MLS campaign, Dillon Serna tapped in a Gabriel Torres pass from just outside the six. You might have hoped that Johnson could have made himself big enough to stop it but his defenders left him on his own and a tap in is a tap in. No blame here either.

Philadelphia. The first Union goal came off of a corner which saw Johnson stay on his line. Positionally it was the right move as the delivery landed well outside the six yard box. Fernando Aristeguieta brushed Lovel Palmer aside to nestle the ball into the bottom corner of the net. You have to give Johnson a pass on this one again. The second goal came on the break as the Fire backline was outnumbered 5 v. 4 and Fabinho found himself in space on the left wing. Johnson looked to have his shot covered before it took a deflection off of Palmer and ended up in the back of the net. On another day it might even have been ruled an OG. Again, it’s hard to blame Johnson in that instance. The final goal came on yet another break. Sebastien Le Toux side-stepped past Palmer who momentarily blocked Johnson’s view as the ball trickled in. Even so, Johnson should have had his angles covered and he has to take some blame on that one. It must be said however that Johnson made four key saves in the last 10 minutes to keep Chicago in the game.

Portland: Johnson’s expression after the lone goal in this match says it all. He had his angles covered but his close proximity to the oncoming Gehrig and Fenando Adi may have caused him to hesitate. Whatever it was he didn’t get enough on the ball and Adi roofed it into the net. This one is on Johnson.

Lampson’s goals against:

NYCFC: This match could be delegated its own separate article but we’ll try to be brief. The first goal was a Tommy McNamara wonder strike. No one felt like closing him down and the shot was unstoppable. However, goals do not happen in a vacuum. We cannot forget that the play started with an overzealous Lampson pass to Matt Polster which was picked off. The second goal looked like a moment out of a Three Stooges bit with Joao Meira kicking Michael Harrington in the face before Tony Taylor put a shot to the far post. Lampson was caught in no man’s land trying to decide whether to come or go. In the end he didn’t close the angle down enough and he has to be partially to blame. On the third NYCFC goal Khiry Shelton strolled into the box and rounded Lampson before emphatically burying the ball in the net. Lampson publically took responsibility for that one so we’ll leave it at that. The fourth and final goal was the result of the Fire defense giving Mix Deskerud all the time and space that he wanted to place the shot in the bottom corner, un-savable and definitely not Lampson’s fault.

Orlando: Cyle Larin opened the scoring early in this match with a beautifully placed shot. There was no faulting Lampson on the strike.

Columbus: Lampson and company earned a clean sheet against the ‘keeper’s former team. Upon closer examination the result has to be attributed to stalwart defending and team organization more so than goalkeeping. Columbus registered four shots on target. Frederico Higuain lobbed one into Lampson’s arms, Justin Meram rifled one into Campbell, Tony Tchani had a speculative go from distance, and a well struck shot from Ethan Finlay forced an acrobatic save from Lampson. You can certainly count “marshaling the defense” as part of a goalkeeper’s duties but the one save was Lampson’s most tangible contribution.

Philadelphia: Chicago earned another clean sheet against Philadelphia but upon closer examination it was a combination of blizzard like conditions and the woodwork rather than Lampson’s play that led to the result. Although statistically speaking Lampson made four saves, none of those shots were threatening. Sure, you can once again applaud the ‘keeper for organizing the men in front of him but the task was lightened by a Union side that was reduced to 10 men for 30-plus minutes of the match.

NYCFC: This was Lampson’s match. If you didn’t have any other performances to compare it to and couldn’t see the badge on his shirt you would assume he was a starting keeper for a top European club. Credit where credit is due, Lampson’s eight saves were not only statistically impressive but his acrobatics often stopped the NYCFC players mid celebration. It was no surprise that David Villa told the media that Lampson deserved man of the match honors.

Montreal: For as good as Lampson was in the NY match he had an awful match against Montreal. He revealed glaring problems in any presumed “better distribution” and defensive organization in that match. A head scratching give-away by Lampson to Dominic Oduro saw the former Fire speedster square the ball to Didier Drogba, who once again slotted home against his first MLS club. The second Montreal score was a goal of the week contender as Ignacio Piatti curled a shot into the upper 90 from just outside the left corner of the box. If we’re being fair, the shot was unstoppable but organization was missing on that play. The dangerous Argentine was left with enough time and space to grill up some chimichurri asado and throw on the water for some yerba mate before placing his shot where he wanted.


It seems clear that Lampson’s distribution statistics were “better” as far as completion given the relatively small sample size (58% to 52%) but the fact remains that Johnson wasn’t playing in a “build from the back system” nor did he have anyone in his backline with the on the ball skill of Johan Kappelhof, Jonathan Campbell, or Rodrigo Ramos to trust with quick restarts. Lampson’s turnover mistakes seem to have directly cost the Fire more than Johnson’s errant out of bounds passes. Outside of his NYCFC match Lampson has had significantly fewer difficult saves or saves that have kept the Fire in the match.

It should also be considered that the six matches surveyed only included the most recent regular season games that Johnson has appeared in. At the point of those contests the Fire were already out of playoff contention, morale was at an all-time low, and Johnson was struggling with a left shoulder tear that eventually ended his season. Some might consider those as excuses for a professional athlete (we won’t discuss the injury and being asked to play through it) but perhaps they can be admitted to the periphery of the conversation.

Statistically speaking Johnosn let in more goals from fewer shots but if you take away Gehrig’s own goal and the PK, the goals against average is equal. The number of times Lampson has been saved by the post or not had his angles covered only to see the attacker miss should also be of concern. Philadelphia alone had three shots hit the woodwork and saw two glaring CJ Sapong misses with Lampson rooted to the spot. Keep in mind this is all with a better backline in front of the newcomer.

If statistics and team chemistry are the main criteria perhaps Lampson gets the edge. Without being privy to practice every day it seems that Paunovic and his training staff see more potential with Lampson. If overall game play, available personnel and situational awareness are factors, Johnson wins out.  We’re not sure if we have cleared up the water or muddied it more, but at least there are some concrete points entered into the discussion.

The Fire may want to rethink shopping Johnson around the league or making a transfer move to another club before committing to stick with Lampson. At a guaranteed salary of $253,000.00 in 2015, Johnson is too expensive to sit on the bench as a back-up goalkeeper and it will be difficult to find a trade partner within MLS that is willing to commit that much budget space to another ‘keeper at this stage in the season. If the Fire intend to move him they will likely need to assume a large portion of his salary in order to find a taker.

Given all of the numbers discussed above, that budget hit is probably the most important.

Filed under: 2016 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    I don't think the match comparisons are really that fair. I could find plenty of highlights from last season where SJ is making similar mistakes as Lampson is this season.

  • In reply to Jimmy Garcia:

    Smaller sample size.....the Fire have also chosen to play a more defensive style in the last 5 games.

  • In reply to Guillermo Rivera:

    The sample size is too small, for sure. A better comparison would have been Johnson's performance in the first 6 games of 2015. A team's early-season quality is variable, so that has an effect on how much work a goalkeeper has to do..

    I don't think that Paunovic's decision to go with Lampson has as much to do with stats as it does with what he saw in training. Marty acknowledged that we don't see what's happening in training every day the way the coaches do.

  • Interesting comparison.

    A curiosity: Johnson's high-water mark statistically was the 2012 season - a 16-10-5 record, 108 saves, 1.24 goals against average, all career bests for him... it's as if he was trying to make up for the Olympic qualifying debacle at the start of the season.

    Since then... his job has been to stop shots while the defense crumbled around him. I don't really have a horse in the SJ - ML race, but neither has the greatest team around them. I wonder what the possession stats are in these 12 games? The more the other team possesses, the more organizing the defense matters as a keeper. My hunch is that it's another stat that would not clearly separate the two but it might add to the context.

  • My impression is that Johnson is faster on reflexes. The game that immediately comes to mind is the 1-0 win at KC (2012?)

    In any case, it's ultimately a narrow margin between these two that doesn't really push the needle much when you factor in that overall results is largely affected by our poor offense

  • My impression is that SJ has the faster reflexes, the example that comes immediately to mind is the 1-0 win over KC (2012?)

    In any case, the margin of difference between the two isn't going to factor too much in the overall results when the main factor determining the right now is our poor offense.

  • In reply to BrianC.:

    *inadvertent duplicate post*

  • Guillermo. I have been reading your stuff for years. This is one of your best.

  • In reply to Brokerman:

    All credit to Marty on this one.

Leave a comment