Duluth’s Daniel Johnson turning heads at MLS combine

Daniel Johnson, shown here playing for Louisville. (Louisville)

Daniel Johnson, shown here playing for Louisville. (Louisville)

No player has impressed more at the MLS combine than Duluth’s Daniel Johnson.

The wispy midfielder has shown a combination of calmness on the ball and aggressiveness and accuracy with his passing that has moved him from a late first-round pick into a potential top-10 selection in Friday’s draft.

Johnson credits the soccer culture in Georgia – and one coach in particular — for helping him develop into a player on the verge of a professional career that, if not for paperwork, might have started years ago.

“Not only the coaches, but the kids in the Atlanta area,” Johnson said. “The soccer community is so close knit. I think it’s incredible that it’s getting an MLS program. It’s been ready for it for years.”

It’s a community that Johnson says never stops playing soccer. When his group of friends come home from college during Christmas – Johnson started at Maryland before transferring to Louisville — pick-up games are scheduled at indoor facilities. Game times usually start at 11 p.m. so that they can play all night.

The first time one was set up at a facility in Norcross, Johnson said many of the 40-50 kids who were there were required to send photos to parents who were skeptical that their sons were out that late playing soccer.

The games continued each year and in the summer at Norcross, or Creekside Academy, or Metro North Park, or Pinckneyville Park.

“It’s just a testament to how much talent and the culture around soccer in the Atlanta area,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Johnson rolls through a list of coaches who have helped him since he first started playing at the age of 5. But one coach, Tony Annan, seems to stand out.

Annan is now the head of Atlanta United’s academy. Johnson first met Annan when he came to coach his under-12 team in Norcross.

“He taught me so much about the game on and off the field,” Johnson said. “At such a young age, maybe he saw potential in me, but he started to teach me what it means to be a good player and to be a good pro on and off the field. He was extremely influential on me in growing up in Atlanta.”

That potential was evident, according to Annan. Johnson was fearless on the field, driven by something internally that few have.

“He lives, breathes, dies for the game,” Annan said. “He never wanted to do anything else. It was all about football. His ability matched his attitude. When you find a kid like that, those are the kids that you nurture, and not coach it out of them.”

That combination of skills, drive and emotion led Johnson to move to London in 2009 at the age of 13 to join the academy of Premier League club West Ham. He was on his own, living at the Brentwood School and playing soccer.

Three years later, he was offered a chance to sign with the team’s under-18s, a last step to potentially earning a spot on the senior squad and one day facing Manchester United at Old Trafford, or Liverpool at Anfield.

Then bureaucracy stepped in.

Johnson’s visa wasn’t granted.

He returned to Atlanta. He and Annan re-connected, meeting for a burger or milkshake. Johnson was angry, disappointed and lacking confidence. Annan provided some tough love.

“I said, ‘It’s not the end of the road,’ ” Annan said. “ ‘We’ve all been released from a contract, been told we aren’t good enough. You can’t just give up. You’ve got a gift. You’ve got an attitude that people would die to have. You’ve got to carry on.’ ”

Johnson did, joining Annan at Georgia United. After Johnson’s time at West Ham, Annan said he was obviously a better player. But mentally he was still a mess.

“Most of the work was getting to believe in himself again and stop being so critical,” Annan said. “It wasn’t easy.”

That confidence was easy to see on Tuesday during a scrimmage at the StubHub Center. On one play, Johnson ran onto a loose ball some 40 yards from goal. After looking up and seeing the goalkeeper playing off the line, Johnson tried a long-range miracle shot, something not every player would attempt because of the long odds. Johnson didn’t score, but he did force the goalkeeper to make a save that resulted in a corner kick.

Johnson said he’s thought about the possibility of being selected by Atlanta United, which has the Nos. 2 and 8 picks in Friday’s draft.

“It would be a dream to play in front of my friends and my family,” he said. “At this point, I just want to play. Wherever I get picked, I’ll go, but I definitely have in the back of my mind that Atlanta United would be sort of like a dream.”