TORONTO — Sean Johnson has yet to start a game for Toronto FC, but he has already got a taste of the city's star power.
In wooing the free agent goalkeeper, the MLS club took Johnson, his girlfriend Marissa and his agent to a Raptors game and dinner at Ristorante Sotto Sotto.
"We had a special guest come over and say hello and kind of tell him a bit about Toronto," related Toronto president Bill Manning without identifying the mystery visitor.
"It was a great opportunity for him to get the feeling for our city — and for our club," he added.
Johnson let the cat out of the bag later at Wednesday's availability at TFC's north Toronto training centre. Apparently Drake has a fondness for the Italian restaurant.
"A terrific guy. A terrific ambassador for the city," said Johnson, who arrives as a free agent from New York City FC.
Celebrity sighting aside, Johnson said he chose Toronto because the club made him feel wanted and because it is "positioned to win."
"For me it was time to just take on a new challenge … I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be," he said.
Johnson's signing fills a gaping hole for Toronto, which let goalkeepers Alex Bono and Quentin Westberg leave after the club tied a franchise-worst by leaking 66 goals last season.
Manning said the team made the 33-year-old Johnson its "primary target" for a new 'keeper in the off-season and, after inquiring, was told he was interested but wanted to wait until after his time at the World Cup with the U.S.
The dinner in Toronto came after the tournament in Qatar.
Johnson said he took his time in choosing his next team because players seldom get to choose their future.
"Being patient in my career has given me the ability to make the right decisions," he said. "And ultimately I have full confidence that this is the perfect place for me."
The U.S. international, entering his 14th MLS season, is coming off a year that saw him record a career-high 14 shutouts and earn all-star status with NYCFC.
Bob Bradley, Toronto's head coach and sporting director, says the former New York captain is a leader and winner.
"Everyone that you speak to that has been around him talks about how he brings the level up around him," said Bradley.
Johnson, who earned his first U.S. cap under Bradley, is the second former club captain to join TFC in the off-season. Veteran centre back Matt Hedges, who signed as a free agent in December, served as FC Dallas skipper for eight seasons.
Italian star Lorenzo Insigne captained Napoli before joining Toronto last July. Midfielder Michael Bradley, the son of Bob Bradley, is TFC's longtime skipper.
Johnsen said the arrival of Insigne and fellow Italian Federico Bernardeschi last summer made waves in the league.
"I think we were terrified of the players, honestly," he said with a chuckle.
"It's a lot better to be teammates than opposition, that's for sure," he added.
Toronto has also signed Italian left back Raoul Petretta to help fill the void left by the departure of veteran Italian Domenico Criscito. Norwegian international Sigurd Rosted, a 28-year-old centre back, is expected to be the next arrival.
Rosted's previous club, Denmark's Brondby IF, has already said goodbye while noting he is headed to Toronto. TFC has yet to confirm his acquisition.
Johnson, named MVP of the 2021 MLS Cup, has made 400 appearances for New York and the Chicago Fire in all competitions since entering the league in 2010.
The six-foot-three, 216-pounder has won 11 caps for the U.S., most recently starting in Saturday's 0-0 draw with Colombia in Carson, Calif. He made one save to extend his national team streak of shutout minutes streak to 759.
Johnson has conceded just one goal in his 11 international appearances, coming eight minutes into his debut on Jan. 22, 2011, against Chile.
Johnson was acquired using targeted allocation money, which can be used to sign a new player provided his salary and acquisition costs are more than the maximum salary budget charge which was US$612,500 last season.
Given Johnson was a free agent, there was no acquisition cost this time.
Johnson made US$550,000 in 2022, compared to $557,000 for Bono and $313,585 for Westberg.
TFC has 29-year-old Greg Ranjitsingh, last year's third-stringer, and 22-year-old Tomas Romero as backup goalkeepers.
After a brief stop in Toronto, the players are scheduled to return to California on Thursday to continue training camp. TFC opens pre-season play Feb. 8 against the Vancouver Whitecaps at the Coachella Valley Invitational in Indio, Calif.
Toronto kicks off the regular season Feb. 25 at D.C. United.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press