BEAVERTON, Ore. – There’s no denying that Sunday was Will Johnson’s night.
The Portland Timbers captain’s performance against the San Jose Earthquakes in the type of physical game that tests one’s meddle has encapsulated just what Johnson has meant to the team’s rebranding under new head coach Caleb Porter.
His fiery, blue-collar mentality was on display when he got in the face of San Jose forward Alan Gordon -- who had a number of hard collisions with Timbers players throughout the night -- in a 59th-minute fracas that led to Gordon shouting a homophobic slur that resulted in his three-game suspension. While it was just one moment, it was a message of sorts that Portland wouldn’t be shying away from San Jose’s rough-and-tumble style of play.
And then Johnson answered the call with his play, scoring on a perfectly struck free kick in the 78th minute to give Portland their second straight win and keep them unbeaten in the last four. The goal, his third, equaled his career high recorded last season with Real Salt Lake, where he spent the last five years of his career in a mostly secondary role.
His other two goals this season were equally important, coming in a second-half brace that dug Portland out of a 2-0 hole in a March 30 game at the Colorado Rapids that ended in a 2-2 draw. It’s that type of toughness and resilience that Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson cited when they made Johnson their first offseason acquisition.
“I don’t know if you ever expect those kinds of things,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com after Wednesday’s session at the team’s training facility. The Timbers are preparing to face San Jose again on Sunday at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“When I first came here I didn’t expect to be made the captain," Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. "I expected to come in here and be a leader and help this team win the best I could and whatever things came my way in doing that I was more than ready to take on the responsibility. Having expectations or thinking anything is going to be given to you, ever, I’ve learned not to do that.”
Johnson has thrived in his roles as both a leader and as a crucial cog in Porter’s possession attack as a central midfielder. He’s started all six games and leads the team in shots on goal (7), is tied with forward Ryan Johnson for the team lead in goals and is second in shots (16).
“The goals are nice,” Johnson said. “Obviously I think this formation suits my style of play, allows me to get forward a little bit more, right place, right time. It’s just kind of on a good run and feeling good about everything. And when you’re in a positive state of mind like that and everything is kind of clicking then good things tend to happen.”
That state of mind was fostered from the outset of preseason training in late January. Johnson, a Canadian international team mainstay, skipped their January camp so he wouldn’t miss the start of his new club’s early training sessions.
“I wanted to get the training environment right and make sure everybody is on their toes and do my part,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he feels like the rest of the team has taken on his identity as a hard-nosed, blue-collar-type player.
“But it’s not just me, there are bunch of guys out there who are contributing to our team,” he said. “I’m definitely a part of that. My approach to the game has always been the minimum requirement is you always have to work hard and never get outworked. The soccer is not always going to be there.”
Johnson’s relationship with Jack Jewsbury, the Timbers’ captain in their first two MLS seasons and this year’s “club captain,” has also been crucial in linking the team’s existing players with their newcomers. Jewsbury said both he and Johnson have embraced their dual leadership roles.
“From the get go, Will and I, we’re on board with the same thing,” Jewsbury said. “We both want to win here and do some things that this club has never done in terms of making the playoffs and after that you never know."
Porter said Johnson’s actions Sunday against San Jose was the main reason the Timbers were able to keep their cool as the intensity and physicality increased.
“I think when you’re captain is composed and managing the game and not getting emotional or rattled then I think the rest of the guys are going to fuel off that,” Porter said. “So I think his leadership has definitely played a part in our team looking like the team it has been the last two games.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.