As a young boy growing up on the West Coast of Africa in Sierra Leone, Michael Johnson said he always woke up early in the morning. He slipped on a pair of shorts and ran outside to play soccer.
Johnson, who wears a perpetual grin and has an infectious, giggly laugh, didn't eat breakfast despite the fact that he knew he'd be out of the house for a while. He'd run all day, kicking whatever ball he and his friends could find across rocks, sand and stone, aiming at crates or boxes they collected to serve as goals. He missed lunch, too, at which his parents would always become upset.
And when his father, Desmond Johnson (a former professional soccer player), forced Johnson inside to eat dinner, he'd scarf that down and sprint right back out.
“I always loved to play soccer,” said Johnson, now a junior at Bladensburg High School. “It was kind of different because back home you don't really have a coach. You just get up and you just go play. You practice on your own, develop your own skills. Then you're ready to play.”
Since moving to Maryland in 2009, it's pretty evident that Johnson is “ready to play.” In his third year at Bladensburg — during a campaign where he's split time between center back and attacking midfielder — the powerful 5-foot-10, 170-pound Johnson has scored 12 goals and assisted on six more in eight matches. Not unrelated, the Mustangs have a 5-2-1 record.
“He's the absolute team man. I'm sure he'd play goalkeeper for me if I asked him to, and I'm sure he'd be pretty damn good at it,” second-year Mustangs coach Avinash Chandran said. “Michael is special, I cannot deny that. It's just a question of somebody giving him the time and attention that he deserves.”
That question remains unanswered. Despite emerging as one of the county's better players — Johnson said he now consistently hears opposing players warning one another about “that No. 8” — he hasn't received much attention from college coaches. Unable to afford the high cost of joining an academy program, which also would force him away from playing for a team he loves in the Mustangs, Johnson plays club soccer for the Maryland Rush and said he'll continue to develop his skills in the hopes of playing at the next level.
“I really and truly hope Michael can explode and get to where he belongs,” Chandran said. “There are certain parts of his game tactically that we hope he'll really develop and that we hope will make him top class.”
In a recent match against Laurel, Johnson scored a goal in the second half to put his club up by two before the Spartans came back to win on the strength of forward Kelly Mareh's hat trick. Mareh, who's also from Sierra Leone, and Johnson spoke for a while after the match.
Unlike Mareh, however, the muscular Johnson is comfortable playing anywhere on the field, and has been utilized as such in Chandran's tiki-taka system (maintain possession with short passes).
“I like playing back there,” Johnson said of playing central defense. “It doesn't bother me because I know what my team wants me to do and it's very difficult for another team to pass me or another team to get a goal that easy.
“If playing the back can help win us a state championship then I'm going to do it.”
Bladensburg's run at a state title was cut short last season after a second-round loss to Northwestern in the 4A South Region playoffs. Down the stretch Johnson was significantly hampered by ankle issues that left him far less effective than usual. The bumpy field at Bladensburg, not without its occasional eight-foot-wide mud puddles, doesn't help matters. This season, however, Johnson said he feels better than ever and is anxious to stay healthy and play a full schedule.
“It's a big difference playing a lot of games, helping my team,” said Johnson, whose favorite professional club is Barcelona. “To go from only winning a few games when I got here to having one of the best records now is special.”
Added Chandran: “You find him a way onto a soccer pitch and he won't get off.”