Take this one moment from the 2018 NWSL season, for example. When the rest of the league was off for the international break, the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue matched up on June 8 in their first meeting of the season. In the 93rd minute with the score even at 0-0, Johnson came out of nowhere to chase down former Sky Blue forward Shea Groom and made a huge sliding tackle that cleared the ball and saved her team from losing the game.
The timing, technicality and risk involved in that play looked like something only a veteran player oozing with confidence could pull off.
In 2019, she’ll be wearing the jersey of the opposing team from that moment. Johnson was traded to Sky Blue in January from the Spirit, where she spent the past four seasons. Prior to her time in Washington, she played for the Western New York Flash and the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS.
So while plenty has changed, some things remain the same. Her confidence hasn’t gone anywhere and neither has her humility. And when asked about her attention to details to make those type of game-saving tackles, she laughed.
It's that time again. #NWSL 3 Moments from Weeks 11 & 12!
— NWSL (@NWSL) June 20, 2018
“I would say my tackling is all about timing,” Johnson told NWSL Media over the phone. “You don’t want to tackle too soon, and you certainly don’t want to tackle too late because that’s a foul. Really it’s just about reading the rhythm of the game.”
Johnson said Sky Blue FC head coach Denise Reddy, in just their short time of working with one another, has helped her fine tune a big part of her game.
“She’s so detail oriented and I’m just not really,” Johnson said. “I’m more in the space of thinking it can be ugly or whatever, but we just gotta get the job done. She’s more like, ‘Well, if you do like this there is no job to get done.’ It’s really been great working with her detail-wise.”
Johnson’s new role with Sky Blue will be leading the backline. As the team starts closing the corner in preseason, the veteran centerback said the defensive unit is “working on its marriage.”
Hold the imagery of a white dress, tux and flowers. Johnson explains, “We all have our own style of play and tendencies, so we’ve been working on our marriages across the backline. We’re just trying to make sure we’re on the same page by the time the first game comes around.”
And what can Johnson offer to this marriage?
“I think I’m very aggressive, I don’t like people having the ball in front of me and me having to drop. I think that’s what makes me a good defender in that I’m aggressive and confident in my stepping up to win a one-v-one battle. I think it makes it a little easier playing with me because when I step I step hard and make it clear I’m going and this makes it easier for my teammates to pinch and cover for me as well.”
Going up against Johnson is another story. 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year, Imani Dorsey has played against and with her for years, from Spirit reserve days and when Duke would scrimmage the Spirit.
“I have always had such a high respect for her [Johnson]; how she carries herself and how she plays the game,” Dorsey told NWSL Media during preseason training.
“She’s the kind of defender where you as an attacker have to think about where she is going to be, and it makes you better because you’re trying to be one step ahead of her because she’s always on her front foot.”
Dorsey and Johnson are new roommates in New Jersey and the respect is mutual. Johnson said of Dorsey: “She’s just such a workhorse so anytime I get her on my team I love it, but I also like defending her because it makes me sharpen up very quickly.”
The feeling of a clean tackle or clearing the ball off the goal line goes unmatched, but on the other hand being a defender, especially in the NWSL isn’t all highlights. Johnson is coming off a losing season with the Spirit and joining a new club that finished last place in 2018.
When asked how she mentally shows up for practice and games when so many losses and tough outcomes are strung together, Johnson said, “It just has to be a good balance. It’s a good balance of holding yourself accountable and thinking about the team. When I think of the best leaders I played with, Heather Mitts, Abby [Wambach], Carli Lloyd, they get their job done and there is no question in anyone’s mind if they are getting it done. If everybody does their own job you’ll have a successful season.”
Injuries have already hit Sky Blue in the offseason, including defender Mandy Freeman who suffered an achilles tendon injury in March. But—even with losing someone who would have been a key part of that defensive unit—it’s a World Cup year. Every team will be facing their own set of challenges with their roster.
And if anyone is confident in taking on a challenge, it’s Estelle Johnson. As she said, “At the end of the day, just get your job done.”