THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer. This week, senior writer Jeff Bradley takes a look at the many roads traveled by Will Johnson, the relentless Portland Timbers midfielder who played for two MLS teams and learned a hard lesson in Europe before finally coming into his own this season in the Rose City.
They say everyone’s life is a different book, each with its own plot, its own set of turning points, defining moments, highs and lows. In the case of a professional soccer player, however, a life is more often like a series of short stories.
There are usually too many twists and turns to fit in one volume. There are setbacks – injuries, obstacles or personal differences with a coach. There are bounces and deflections that can go a player’s way, but there are usually just as many well-struck shots and perfectly placed passes that lead to nothing more than a groan from the crowd.
That’s where we start the story of Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson, who could be any number of places right now, other than trying to lead his team to a first-ever playoff berth (or even a Supporters’ Shield), had one step in his journey been slightly different.
Maybe he’d be in Europe, playing for a big club in a big-money league. Maybe he’d be some other place in MLS, performing in a role that hardly got him noticed.
Instead, we have a player whose stories just keep getting better and more interesting. From a role player to a captain and leader. From an important cog in one team’s wheel to another team’s ballast. From a nice, solid MLS player to a dark horse MVP candidate.
Will Johnson’s 2013 story is going to be hard to top.
“I got here, to Portland, in January, and it still seems like yesterday,” Johnson says. “I guess you could say it started out as a roller coaster, but everything has worked out way better than I could have imagined. It’s been a really big year for me.”
To watch Johnson this season, commanding the Timbers midfield, covering miles of ground per match, moving the ball quickly here and there, shouting out instructions to his teammates, and moving forward to score big goals, you’d swear he’s been around forever. Johnson looks so comfortable in the captain’s armband, you’d think it’s been his for years.
“We needed a player who, inside the lines, understood our vision and, off the field, demanded accountability,” says first-year Timbers coach Caleb Porter. “He became that guy.”
We’ll get to that later, after we scroll back a little. Because to appreciate where Johnson stands now, you should know more about where he’s been and the road he’s traveled.
First, a little formal background. William David Johnson was born in Toronto in 1987 to English parents who raised him for a spell in England before moving back to North America when he was 10, to live and grow up in suburban Chicago.
Do the math, and you’ll notice that Johnson arrived in Chicagoland around the same time as the launch of the city’s Major League Soccer franchise, the Fire. A good and ambitious youth player, Johnson befriended and later became teammates with the son of the Fire’s coach – a kid named Michael Bradley (the author’s nephew). They were immediate friends with similar dreams.
Will Johnson (right) battles AC Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso during an international friendly between the Italian giants and the Chicago Fire in 2005. Johnson appeared in six matches for Chicago before he left for Europe. Says former Fire president Peter Wilt: "I still think it’s a shame he got away."
When Bradley signed a Nike Project 40 contract in 2002, Johnson returned to England to join the youth team of Blackburn Rovers. In 2005, when Bradley was set to debut with the MetroStars, Johnson returned to the US and signed a discovery contract with the Fire.
At 18, Johnson played a handful of games for then-Fire coach Dave Sarachan. He scored in his first career start but appeared in only six games that season.
“We had a senior, competitive roster,” says Sarachan, now an assistant with the LA Galaxy. “But the thing I remember about Will is his extreme desire to be a professional. He had a real tenacity to his approach: his training, absorbing and wanting minutes.
“In fact, I remember he wasn’t real happy with me,” Sarachan adds. “He felt he was ready and was very self-assured that, despite his age, he could be competitive and contribute. I thought he needed time.”
Former Chicago Fire president and general manager Peter Wilt was the man who signed Johnson, but he left the club before the end of Johnson’s first season. Johnson was gone by the end of the year, too, thanks to a successful trial and new deal with Dutch club Heerenveen, the same team that had purchased Bradley’s contract at the end of the 2005 MLS season.
“Coaches were less inclined, seven or eight years ago, to rely on younger players than they are in today’s MLS,” says Sarachan. “We had a challenge to find him a roster spot, given what we had. I would have liked to have kept him, but I think what happened was best for him. He wasn’t willing to play for peanuts, and he thought the time was right to take his chances in Holland. It paid off for him.”
Even having watched Johnson’s exit from the outside looking in, Wilt still expresses sadness when he talks about what the franchise lost when Johnson left the club.
“Will was mature beyond his years,” Wilt recalls. “I still think it’s a shame he got away. He could have been the local star the team has craved since Frank Klopas retired.”
But for Johnson, the exit from Chicago just gave him a blank slate on which to write another story. He and Bradley played together that first year with both the reserves and the first team at Heerenveen, leading Johnson to assume a second year in the Netherlands would go just as well. He admits now, however, that he took bad advice to stick around.
“That was a catastrophic mistake,” he says. “I went on loan to De Graafschap, the champions of the second league, who were moving up. But you don’t realize until you’ve experienced it: You go to a team like that, a team that’s going to battle relegation, and you’re never going to touch the ball. You’re playing Ajax and PSV, all the best teams in Holland, and all you do is chase the whole game.
"There’s not enough quality in the team to compete. You are basically expected to lose 50-60 percent of your games, then play to win maybe every third game, when you play another team that’s facing relegation. That really set me back.”
Who knows how things might have played out had he not accepted the loan and remained with Heerenveen, a team that played up-tempo, attacking soccer, no matter the opponent? Bradley, who was considered more defensive than Johnson, bagged 16 league goals that season and was soon on his way to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga. Johnson, though, was left with the bumps and bruises that come along with playing not to lose most weeks.
“I do have good memories from Heerenveen,” he says. “Michael and I, we won the Reserve League double, won the cup and the league in 2005. We would play on Saturday, 15 or 20 minutes, with the first team. Then on Monday nights, we’d get 90 minutes with the reserve team. That was a good year. But, as I said, the loan-year wasn’t good at all.”
Johnson had other offers in Europe after that second season abroad, but the taste in his mouth was bad enough that he needed another change.
“So I found Salt Lake,” he says, “a place where they cared about me as a person and not just a player.”
Another new beginning. Another new story.
By the time Johnson’s Dutch season was over, his MLS rights had been obtained from the Fire by Real Salt Lake and the deal was done, it was already mid-August 2008. Real Salt Lake and head coach Jason Kreis were trying to reach the playoffs for the first time. Johnson helped them get there after making his debut in late August, and one year later he was a key part of the club's proudest moment, orchestrated by Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey.
Johnson was a regular on an MLS Cup champion and part of the core group that turned RSL into one of the league’s most formidable teams, year in, year out. In his second go-around in MLS, he had become the prototypical glue player.
Johnson (second from left) joined Real Salt Lake in August 2008 and helped lead them to the MLS Cup title a year later. But by 2012 the team needed an overhaul, and shipped him out to the Portland Timbers. Says Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey: "I find myself rooting for him on a weekly basis, because of his personality."
Still, there was no repeat in 2010. And no redemption for RSL in 2011 or 2012. After last season, Kreis and Lagerwey were faced with difficult decisions, and players with expensive contracts needed to be moved for budgetary reasons. Adjustments were needed to again find the right mix on the field.
And Will Johnson.
“It was tough to move all three of those guys,” Lagerwey says. “But I think Will, perhaps more than anyone; he kind of embodied how we worked here. He helped create the culture here. But with that said, I think what we did with Will was a classic win-win. I don’t know that Will, as strong a person as he is, was in line to be a captain of RSL, at least not for a number of years. And, as I watch him now for Portland, I think he’s benefited from that role.”
It’s not hard for Lagerwey to talk this way. Both RSL and Portland have benefitted from the move, seeing that Johnson has emerged as a leader for the Timbers, and RSL has seen players like Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil make the most of their opportunities in Salt Lake.
“We know Will is a good player, so we’re not surprised,” Lagerwey says. “To be honest, I find myself rooting for him on a weekly basis, because of his personality.”
Which brings us to the story that’s being written now.
Stepping into his first professional coaching job after a phenomenal tenure at the University of Akron, Porter had a plan to create a new team dynamic and tap into the Timbers’ best-known commodity: the passion of their fans.
In order to do that, he needed players who would run, who would close down space, who would play the ball quickly. He challenged his team’s heart, commitment and, if you’ll excuse the pun, its Will.
“I thought the supporters would really be proud that he was our captain,” Porter says. “He’s kind of a roll-your-sleeves-up, do-the-dirty-work, refuse-to-lose type of player. The fans see that. Maybe he’s a reflection of them. Our fans are passionate for 90 minutes, and so is Will.”
Johnson was all-in.
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter says he considered a number of candidates for the Portland captaincy before this season, but that Johnson was the best embodiment of what his team's fans want to see. "Our fans are passionate for 90 minutes, and so is Will."
(USA TODAY Sports)
“After the trade, we had a couple of long phone conversations during the off-season,” Johnson recalls. “Caleb went through exactly what he was expecting of me. Leadership-wise, he was telling me that he had three or four candidates in mind for the captain’s armband, and that I was one of them.
"He didn’t want me to do anything differently. He said, ‘Just be yourself throughout preseason, and we’ll see how the group does.’ He said he’d make a decision on captain at the end of the preseason. Obviously, that excited me right away.”
On the field, Porter said he wanted Johnson to take more responsibility in the attacking half, to get forward more and try to score more goals than he had in Salt Lake.
“What we wanted out of Will were simply the things he’s good at,” says Porter. “We were going to play a proactive, attack-oriented, high-pressure, possession-oriented system where we were going to push games at a high-tempo. We weren’t going to sit back. We saw in Salt Lake, where he was asked to do similar things, that he could really help us.”
Says Johnson, “Caleb put those things in my mind during preseason … and I started to really believe this was going to be a big year for me.”
Johnson came to Portland with 10 career goals in 120 MLS games. He has almost doubled that total this year, scoring eight in 25 league games, including a few stunners. His chip-to-himself for a volley against Colorado in June, for one, might be the MLS Goal of the Year.
Johnson has scored a career-high 10 goals this season in Portland, and has his eyes on bigger and better things in the postseason: "It would mean everything for this city."
(USA TODAY Sports)
More importantly, Johnson’s perpetual motion in central midfield has made Porter’s Timbers one of the league’s most consistent teams in 2013. They ran off 18 consecutive competitive games without losing and have only lost back-to-back games once this season, both late August contests that Johnson missed with a shoulder injury.
On Sunday, the Timbers host the rival Seattle Sounders (9 pm ET, ESPN/Deportes, TSN2 in Canada) in the final regular-season meeting of the season for the two Cascadia Cup rivals.
By the end of the night, Johnson and his mates could be celebrating a berth in the playoffs and a share of the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race.
“Making the playoffs would mean everything,” Johnson says. “This thing was blown up, and we started over, and we felt we needed to make the playoffs to be successful. It would be huge.
"And everybody knows, if you get in the playoffs, you’ve got as good a chance as anybody [to win MLS Cup]. It would mean everything for this city and would be a huge boost for this club.”
But by no means would it close the book.
“He’s a guy we want here long-term,” says Porter. “We feel like we’ve done a good job of getting the right pieces, and now it’s key to maintain some continuity. Certainly, Will is a big part of this team’s core. And if we can keep the majority of this team together, with a few changes here and there, I think we have a chance to be good for a long time.”
In other words, when it comes to Will Johnson's story in Portland, the end is nowhere in sight.