Jason Johnson was not overawed when he made his first Dynamo home appearance as a late substitute against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, but then high-profile debuts are nothing new to the young forward.
Johnson's Jamaican national team debut came as a teenager at Argentina in an exhibition game in February 2010. He came off the bench in the last minute - replacing the Dynamo's Omar Cummings - during a 2-1 defeat to an Argentina side coached by Diego Maradona in Mar del Plata, a four-hour drive south of Buenos Aires. It could hardly have been a tougher - or more exciting - introduction to soccer's big-time for a kid who had never even played a professional game.
And that call-up and brief appearance is a key reason why Johnson is a Dynamo player today. It brought him to the attention of U.S. college coaches, and ultimately he chose to leave Jamaica and head to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he scored 28 goals in 60 appearances.
Johnson featured for Jamaica under-23s in their unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the London 2012 Olympics. The buzz suggested that he was a potential top-ten pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft, but the Dynamo were able to grab him as the 13th overall selection and were delighted with their acquisition.
"He's had a good college career, we were surprised to get him when we did in the draft," said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear. "He's showed some good things out here, he's played really well in the three reserve games that we've played which I think is important for him."
Johnson was delighted when he discovered he would be wearing Dynamo orange.
"It's always an honor when good teams want a player, it show the quality of the player you are and how much people out there look and think of you," he told HoustonDynamo.com. "That was really a great moment, to be drafted by one of the best teams in the league. Still, it's not an easy road here. I like how the coaches and players push me in training, helping me to get better at my game each and every day."
HIGHLIGHTS: Johnson scores in Reserve League win
Johnson scored and impressed in a 2-0 reserves win over Chicago Fire reserves on Tuesday. The Giles Barnes and Will Bruin attacking partnership is proving potent, but Barnes missed the Kansas City game through injury and Cummings is yet to tally significant minutes as he works his way back from off-season knee surgery. Cam Weaver was also absent against Sporting with back spasms.
So Johnson is available off the bench as a fast, flamboyant forward who can be used as a winger - another sign of the roster depth that has already been important in midfield this season. At 6-foot tall, he also has the potential to be used as a central striker who can hold the ball up and be dangerous in the air.
The 22-year-old from the cheerful-sounding district of Happy News in central Jamaica will hope to be involved as the Dynamo host the New England Revolution at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday and aim to get straight back into the winning groove following the 1-0 defeat to Sporting that ended the longest home unbeaten streak in MLS history.
"There's going to be opportunities for everybody, there's going to be some times when guys are out missing, injured, suspensions, whatever else. When you get whatever minutes you make the most of them and I think he's doing that right now," said Kinnear. "He has the tools to be successful, it's about being consistent and I think he's starting to understand that."
Johnson made his Dynamo debut as an 89th-minute substitute in the 4-0 win over D.C. United on May 8. His arrival was one of the biggest positives for the Dynamo against Kansas City. He entered the action in the 80th minute and was immediately effective down the right wing as Houston pressed hard for an equalizer. He put a header beyond goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, but defender Paulo Nagamura cleared it off the line.
"I thought it was over! I had one thing on my mind going in, that was to get a goal back for the team to get back in the game," said Johnson. "Otherwise I was really happy for the debut, it shows that the coach has confidence in me, to put me in while the team was down 1-0. That gave me a bit of confidence in going on the pitch."
Having two fellow Jamaica internationals on the roster also helps with Johnson's self-belief. He is grateful for the advice given by Cummings and defender Jermaine Taylor. "Both of them are like big brothers to me. I'm really thankful for the guidance. And there are a couple of other players here who really talk to me each day, show me the ropes," he said.
Taylor had to come off at halftime against Sporting because he was feeling unwell, but hopes to be healthy enough to start against New England. He's impressed with what he sees from his young teammate and believes that as he logs more minutes and matures, Johnson could develop into a valuable player.
"He was awesome, he did brilliantly in the game," said Taylor. "He's a good kid, he's going to grow so you have to give him time, give him more games and try to build his confidence. Keep working with him. Now he's in a professional environment with experienced players pushing him, I guess he will do well in this league and for this team."
Asked for one of the biggest highlights from last Sunday, Johnson named the fans at BBVA Compass Stadium.
"It was really a big start to my career. The crowd helped me a lot on Sunday night, coming on the atmosphere was really enthusiastic. It again gave me a bit of confidence. Having that twelfth man was a boost," he said.
It was an occasion he will never forget; and, with enough hard work and determination to help his natural talent bloom, in future, Johnson should have many more Dynamo days to remember.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.