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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published on April 6, 2020.
After suffering a dislocated shoulder last fall while on loan at National League side Woking FC, winger Tyreke Johnson just wants to play again.
His loan to USL Championship outfit Hartford Athletic this February provided a taste of that, as Johnson featured in a preseason scrimmage against the University of Hartford.
But Johnson, during the era of social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic, is left waiting for competitive games to return.
“I was looking forward to coming out here, because I haven’t played a lot of football this year and last [year] because of my injury,” Johnson, 21, said Sunday night during a phone interview. “I was really excited to get out and play again, but of course everyone is in the same boat. You just have to ride the storm at the moment.”
Johnson, whose loan from from English Premier League side Southampton FC lasts the whole season, provided insight into his unorthodox American start.
He’s living with Congolese goalkeeper Parfait Mandanda, who’s on loan from Belgian side RSC Charleroi, and traveled some around the Northeast before public-health restrictions were introduced. Socially, Johnson is also keeping in touch with friends back home by playing FIFA on PlayStation.
He’s an ocean away from home and unsure of when soccer will return, but maintaining optimism.
“It’s harder being away, but I feel like everyone is in the same boat,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like I’m too different because everyone is isolated as well. Even if I was home, I know I’d be with my family, but I still couldn’t go out and about. I still can talk to them, we’re FaceTiming all the time, so it’s not too bad. Hopefully, this doesn’t have to last too long.”
When Hartford again plays at Dillon Stadium, Johnson is eager to be reunited with new head coach Radhi Jaidi. They have a solid relationship, with Jaidi coaching Johnson during his Southampton U-23 days.
That dynamic factored into the loan opportunity, which saw Johnson used as a left wingback during preseason. He brings top-flight experience, too, with three appearances for Southampton’s first team.
“Coming into preseason late, you could see the coach has a clear style of play that resembles the way we played at Southampton,” Johnson said. “Everyone looks like they’re buying into the way he wants everyone to play. It just looks like a positive environment to be in. All the boys, they’re ready to learn and want to get better. They enjoy the sessions and you can sense the team is building.”
That team building will need to continue, after Hartford retooled nearly its entire roster following last year’s second-to-last place Eastern Conference finish under former head coach Jimmy Nielsen.
As Hartford looks to climb out of those expansion season doldrums, Johnson said a three- or four-week preseason will be necessary. Their at-home workouts, which are led by strength and fitness coach Lucas Kruel, only go so far.
“We’re working hard, but of course it’s different training at home than being match fit,” Johnson said. “For me, I just want to play as soon as it’s safe and possible for us to. The boys all feel the same, so there’s that eagerness. The fans have been waiting, too.”
When that ramp-up period arrives and the COVID-19 pandemic calms down, Johnson is eager to prove himself. Like any loanee, he has bigger targets in his sights.
“I just want to have a lot of games under my belt and keep putting in good performances, progressing and learning new things about playing first-team football,” Johnson said. “It’s getting continuous games as a first-team player and enjoying my experience here.”