Will Johnson’s last stand at Orlando City SC

It’s been a tumultuous two years for Will Johnson.

On September 27th of 2014, Johnson, then the Portland Timbers’ captain, collided with Toronto FC defender Mark Bloom less than a minute into a game at BMO Field in Johnson’s hometown of Toronto and broke his right leg.

Johnson wouldn’t play first-team football again until May of 2015, when his return to the Timbers lineup sparked a run of five straight wins for a Portland team struggling to the point of supporter protest.

But the good times wouldn’t last. Johnson needed follow-up surgery in September, the Timbers switched to a 4-3-3 formation that erased Johnson’s role, and won MLS Cup while their captain watched from the bench.

It was a cruel twist of fate. It was Johnson as much as any other player who fostered a winning culture in Portland after he arrived alongside manager Caleb Porter in 2015.

But, having been effectively squeezed out of the Timbers’ lineup, Johnson had to move on. He landed in his hometown of Toronto for the 2016, expecting to be an integral part of one of MLS’ most high-profile teams.

But a midseason injury would again see Johnson lose his place in the starting lineup – and, though he did play a small part, the Canadian international was again made to watch as his team went to MLS Cup.

After the season, Johnson – rarely one to sensor himself – lashed out at TFC, telling the Toronto Star, “Clint Irwin got hurt, they didn’t go out and get another goalkeeper. Michael got hurt, they didn’t go get another center mid. Seba got hurt, they didn’t go get another striker.”

“For whatever reason, Greg [Vanney] didn’t give me the same fair shake he gave everybody else who got hurt,” Johnson continued. “And especially the way I got hurt, making the sacrifice for the club, made it an easy decision for me to walk away.”

There’s no arguing with the last point. Johnson suffered his injury on a play that can and might speak for his entire career – sacrificing his body to score the Voyageur’s Cup winning goal in the last minute of stoppage time at BC Place in Vancouver.

But to buy into Johnson’s criticism of TFC, you have to be willing to put him in the same class of player as Irwin, Bradley, and Giovinco. Greg Vanney clearly wasn’t buying it. Truth be told, Caleb Porter didn’t either.

That’s why both Portland and Toronto let Johnson walk, and it’s why Johnson in the last two years saw his minutes taken by the likes of Jack Jewsbury and Armando Cooper.

So just how good is Johnson? He isn’t excellent at any one thing. He certainly doesn’t control games physically, and can be amongst the most impetuous players in the league. His competitiveness has, from time to time throughout his career, gotten the better of him.

And yet, this is the same player whose halftime introduction at Stade Saputo last November saved the Eastern Conference Final for Toronto – a tireless two-time All-Star who, over the course of a season-and-a-half as a true number eight in Porter’s high press, poured in fifteen goals and seven assists.

Part of the frustration for Johnson since his broken leg in 2014, then, is that he hasn’t been able to reclaim that box-to-box role. He worked mainly as a stay-at-home six in 2015 with Portland, and often played wide early last season in Toronto.

And while Johnson wasn’t bad in either spot – and might be best suited to a holding role that best utilizes his work-rate and defense – he seems eager to return to the kind of all-action role he enjoyed in Portland.

Of his decision to reunite with Jason Kreis in Orlando, Johnson told MLSSoccer.com,
“I want a coach that believes in my skill-set and understands I’m a good midfielder in this league when utilized in the right way. Being able to get box-to-box, being able to get around the field… is very appealing.”

Kreis, clearly, is a believer. Johnson made his name under Kreis at RSL, and Kreis signed him for Orlando despite already boasting an extremely crowded central midfield with the likes of Cristian Higuita, Antonio Nocerino, and Servando Carassco.

Certainly, a large part of Johnson’s appeal to Kreis and a club like Orlando is his character. There are few players in the game more competitive or intense, and the impact Johnson had on a young Timbers team in 2013 was dramatic.

Kreis must be hoping for a similar impact in his second season with Orlando – another young club that, for all its success off the field, has been more miss than hit on it.

Johnson is a winner. There’s no arguing that. Since he signed for Real Salt Lake in 2008, he’s missed the playoffs just once and made three trips to MLS Cup.

But for a maximum return on his investment, Kreis needs Johnson to be more than just his leadership qualities.

Johnson, for his part, has been itching for a chance to get back to his best ever since he returned from his broken leg. He believes – as he always has – that he can be a franchise cornerstone. Orlando might be his last chance to prove it.

For one of MLS’ most divisive players, 2017 will be a moment of truth.

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