PORTLAND, Ore. – Will Johnson is surrounded by strangers.
Well, sort of. The Portland Timbers captain will appear in his second MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night (9:30 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas, TSN/RDS), in front of his home fans vs. German juggernaut Bayern Munich.
But he is alone when it comes to Canadians on this All-Star roster. That’s happened only once before since MLS expanded to Canada with Toronto FC’s entrance in 2007. And for a league supporting the game in two countries, Johnson hopes that changes.
“You’re starting to see players coming out of Toronto’s Academy and Montreal, Vancouver a little bit,” he told reporters at All-Star training on Tuesday. “But it takes a lot of time, [it’s] a long-term project, so I think over the years, you’ll start to see more Canadian players involved in events like this. But I think that’s a long-term process.”
Canadian soccer is in a lull between generations, Johnson pointed out. With the men’s national team winless in 16 straight matches dating back to 2012 and ranked an all-time low No. 118 in the world by FIFA, the program is transitioning between a somewhat successful generation and trying to blood new talent.
Past MLS All-Star Games have been a showcase for that old generation, particularly for Toronto's Dwayne De Rosario, who made seven consecutive All-Star appearances between 2006-12 and won the game’s MVP award in 2006. Pat Onstad and Jim Brennan were also regulars, and Montreal Impact captain Patrice Bernier made his first appearance in 2013.
Those players are all now retired or nearing the ends of their careers, leaving 27-year-old Johnson as the elder statesman in his prime to help transition to younger players coming through the pipeline. But that may not happen in the immediate future.
“There’s a talent gap between what other CONCACAF countries are producing in terms of players and what we’re producing in Canada,” he continued. “Those are the facts. And after four or five years, hopefully, the guys that are getting an opportunity now with the national team will turn into national team players at a level where we can compete with other CONCACAF teams.”
Toronto’s Ashtone Morgan and Vancouver’s Russell Teibert participated in the Chipotle Homegrown Game here on Monday, and Canada’s three MLS teams are among the league leaders in Homegrown signings. Many of those same players have been called into Benito Floro’s senior men’s national team camps over the past few months as that new generation inherits Canadian soccer.
For Johnson, that can’t come a minute too soon.
“I think it’s more important for the Canadian national team to do well for the league, and for those academies,” Johnson said. “I think that will go a long way. But as far as the MLS All-Star Game, it would be nice to have a few Canadians involved.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.