When Jason Johnson was included in the initial list of four underclassmen that had signed Generation Adidas deals he was probably the least known of the group. Lopez, Zimmerman, and Farrell had been at the top of the mock drafts for the past couple of months as it seemed that they would likely be turning pro this year and are widely regarded as the top prospects in this draft.
Johnson is a bit more of a sleeper pick than the others and might just end up surprising a lot of people. Many consider that Virginia Commonwealth University junior to be the best forward available in the draft and even rate him more highly than Eriq Zavaleta. I am not one of them but a case can certainly be made for him being the first forward selected come January 17th.
He has all the skills that are needed to be a very good forward in MLS but he has a few glaring knocks against him as well. In his junior season he started in all 21 of his schools games notching 13 goals and adding 6 assists. It was his best season for the Rams and did a lot to boost his draft stock building on the 11 goals that he tallied as a sophomore. He will leave VCU having appeared in 60 games scoring 28 goals and adding 10 assists.
His numbers are impressive considering that in the 2012 season VCU only scored 42 goals and Johnson played a direct role in 19 of them which is 45% of the teams total. He also accounted for 25% of his teams total shots on the season and 29% of there shots on target. No matter how you slice it you can safely say that Johnson was a huge part of the Rams attack this season and was instrumental in leading them to a 12-4-5 record in 2012. The Rams were knocked out by Syracuse in the second round of this years NCAA tournament marking their first tournament appearance since 2004.
His numbers with VCU are not the only thing that will jump off the page for interested teams. He also earned his first cap with the Jamaican national team when he was just a teenager. He was called into camp in February of 2010 and earned some playing time in a match against Argentina on February 10, 2010. He is now 22 years old (just had his birthday on January 1st) and has yet to earn a second cap but he was a part of the Jamaican squad for Olympic qualifying.
Heading towards the draft he is not creating the same kind of buzz that his fellow countryman Darren Mattocks generated last year but he is still almost certain to wind up being an early selection to a team that is in need of attacking help. He is a forward but has a fair bit of versatility on his side and could remind a lot of people of another left footed Jamaican player, Ryan Johnson. Like RJ, he has the ability to play on the left wing if needed but can also be used as more of a central striker depending on the formation. That versatility is a direct result of the fact that he is a fantastic athlete and can make good use of every inch of his 6 foot frame.
With VCU Johnson proved that he is not the kind of forward who wants to just sit up front and wait for a chance to fall for him. He was often dropping deeper to try and get the ball and make things happen. He is certainly not shy when it comes to taking defenders on with his dribble and can beat them with his pace or his strength. He has also shown that he needs to be marked almost everywhere he goes in the final third as he is capable of producing some good long range efforts.
When watching him in NCAA action you often got the impression that he was the one man out there playing among 21 boys and he was able to get to wherever he wanted on the field creating chances for himself frequently. It will certainly be harder for him to do that at the next level but has the raw athleticism to be an impact player.
The big issue with Johnson has always been one of motivation. In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch he was very candid in discussing the fact that when he arrived at VCU he had a lot of talent but was lacking in motivation. When discussing the pressure his coach, Dave Giffard, places on him to work harder in games Johnson said, "You've got to work hard. When you're tired, you've just got to push through it. Like coach says, if you have talent, sometimes you can cheat and it works out. But you'll get caught most of the time."
That knock remains on him but he has already come a long way in his three seasons playing NCAA soccer. If he can find the motivation to match his talent level there is no doubt that he could be a good forward in MLS, or even in one of the world's top leagues. As his coach remarked in the same article, "if he does what he should do to the very best of his ability, he can do anything he wants in this game."
It is high praise from a coach who has worked with a trio of National Players of the Year when he was an assistant coach at Akron. He helped to recruit and coach the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Teal Bunbury, Kofi Sarkodie, and Steve Zakuani while at Akron under Caleb Porter. Since moving to VCU, Giffard has continued to recruit top players and turn them into even better players but Johnson is the first top player that he has produced in his 3 seasons at the school.
Giffard has already turned VCU into a much better program than it was when he arrived, recruiting top NCAA players from a variety of countries and motivating them to reach their full potential. The school has produced some MLS players in the past including a pair of Chicago Fire players in Dominic Oduro and Gonzalo Segares who were both members of the school's last tournament team.
Johnson will now almost certainly be the highest ever draft pick out of VCU as Oduro and Segares were taken in the 2nd and 3rd round respectively. He may also find himself in the top 10 or even 5 of this draft should he manage to turn some heads at the combine. In Top Drawer Soccer's mock draft 2.0 he is going 12th overall to Real Salt Lake but on the Soccer by Ives board he finds himself going 4th overall to the New England Revolution. In middle of the road option comes from the WVHooligan mock draft that has he landing at 6th and heading to the Colorado Rapids.
No matter which draft board you trust the most it is safe to say that Johnson will be one of the first forwards taken in this draft and that with the right coaching and motivation he could end up being a very good pickup for some team. For my money the only forward that could be in the draft that I rate higher than him is Eriq Zavaleta but that is less about ability and more about consistency.
One the TFC side of things Johnson would actually be a selection that makes a fair bit of sense. He would offer a lot that the current attacking group is lacking and that is pace and the ability to play out on the left. The team has plenty of big bodies to play down the middle in Danny Koevermans, Eric Hassli, and Justin Braun but they could probably do with an upgrade over Andrew Wiedeman on the left side of the attack. They could find that in Johnson while adding some much needed pace at the same time. If they are looking to use one of the their early selections on a forward he should certainly be one of a select few players that they even consider.
If you are still not sold on why Johnson should be a top pick in the draft this year I will leave you with this video that shows you all you need to know about the special kind of moments he was able to produce at VCU complete with an annoying soundtrack and a whole lot of goals (bicycle kick alert!)