Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics
By THOMAS FLOYD
Jason Johnson sure doesn’t shy from lofty comparisons. In truth, he relishes them. When asked which player’s game most resembles his own, the Virginia Commonwealth forward didn’t hesitate.
“I would say Cristiano Ronaldo,” he stated bluntly, before laughing as he added a caveat — “but not the fancy stuff.”
Now that’s setting the bar pretty high. So how about an MLS player he emulates?
Well all right then.
Johnson, it’s safe to say, looks to the best for role models. As a physical yet skilled forward with a penchant for thriving in a wide-left position, the Jamaican international knows few others in the world of soccer have put their stamp on that spot the way Ronaldo and Henry have.
When it comes to college soccer, Johnson is in rare company of his own. As one of seven players selected for the 2013 Generation Adidas class, the Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year is poised to be one of the first names off the board at the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 17 in Indianapolis.
Johnson’s prospective employers should get a good look at him in the coming days as he takes part in the MLS Combine, which kicks off Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“J.J. is an interesting combination of size, power, speed and good technique,” said VCU coach Dave Giffard, a former assistant under Caleb Porter at Akron. “Physically, he’s very prepared to step into the league and compete right away, in terms of being able to take on the daily grind and the battle and the athleticism and physicality of MLS.”
Since moving to the U.S. to attend VCU in 2010, Johnson has enjoyed a trajectory titled firmly upward, going from a bench player his freshman year to notching 11 goals and five assists as a sophomore and, this past fall, 13 goals and six assists in that stellar junior campaign.
Born in the town of Happy News, the 22-year-old comes from humble beginnings on the Jamaican countryside. Although he originally developed a preference for cricket, his brother Kemar, two years his elder, nudged him toward the beautiful game.
“He was a big fan before I was,” Johnson recalled. “You always want to follow in your big brother’s footsteps.”
That turned out to be a good choice. With a scholarship to VCU, he packed his bags and took his easy-going persona — and playing style — to the more structured ranks of collegiate soccer. While he felt the off-the-field adjustments came naturally (aside from leaving behind his beloved Jamaican cuisine, that is), it took some time before his discipline and work habits were up to snuff.
“His work rate has continued to come up,” Giffard said. “I do think that as one of the more talented players in the country, sometimes the game can be a little bit easier and maybe not quite as challenging every day as it will be as he continues to go up the ladder. So making that adjustment and being his best, day in, day out, will be a challenge. But it also will show some rewards.”
Added Johnson: “When you have bad habits, it’s really hard to get out of it. I think that was and is my biggest problem. [I've improved] a lot, but there’s still more to go for. So I’m not stopping right now.”
Yet for all the growth the 6-foot, 180-pounder has experienced rounding himself into a more complete player, his physical gifts still stand out.
If a player is going to receive his first national team cap at the age of 19, like Johnson did in February 2010 against Argentina, it’s safe to say he’s been gifted with his fair share of natural talent.
“That’s always a magical moment for a young teenager to represent their country at such a tender age,” said Johnson, who also played for the Jamaica U-23s last year in Olympic qualifying. “Words can’t explain it.”
Just as the Jamaican national team setup identified Johnson’s talent early, so did Giffard, who initially saw the player during a scouting trip to the Caribbean in the spring of 2010.
It was a first impression he won’t soon forget.
“I saw a lot of the qualities that were in there,” Giffard said. “And I really felt that if we put a guy like this into a good environment, where it’s challenging every day and as professional as it can be, surround him with good players, he was a guy who had the tools to play at a significantly higher level than the college game.”