TORONTO – 2016 has been a homecoming of sorts for Will Johnson.
Traded to Toronto FC last December after three years in Portland, Johnson made his way back to the city of his birth and took up residence in the country, Canada, that he represents at the international level.
Following a footballing saga that saw him travel from England to Chicago to the Netherlands and Salt Lake City, Sunday sees yet another emotional return as the midfielder steps on the pitch at his former stopping grounds when Toronto travel to Oregon to face the Timbers for the first and only time this regular season (3:30 pm ET; ESPN | TSN4/RDS2).
Speaking last Thursday ahead of Toronto's victorious trip to Montreal, Johnson confided playing in Portland again would be “special.”
“On one hand, I can't wait, on the other, I don't want me going back to overshadow what a fantastic game it'll be. The crowd, the atmosphere; two of the teams, for me, that do things the right way, that are well-coached, are well-organized, have good players, who are passionate about this league.”
It is those final, finer points that are of ultimate interest. Johnson won MLS Cups with both Salt Lake and Portland, so he knows well what is required to succeed in this league.
Having found cup glory under Jason Kreis and Caleb Porter, Johnson now plays under the tutelage of another American coach and former MLS player, Greg Vanney, who is now excelling in his third season at the helm.
As with Salt Lake and Portland, Toronto have found a structure under which their collective defensive effort has flourished – collecting 11 points and keeping three clean-sheets through seven away matches to start the season.
“I'm going to try and downplay [my return] as much as I can, but obviously I can't wait to go back and see a lot of people in the stands – those fans were always very good to me – so it'll be a treat,” he concluded.
Johnson has started all seven TFC matches this season, bringing his trademark tenacity to a variety of positions in the middle of the pitch. Already, he has chipped in with a trio of assists – good enough for second place in the club's scoring charts, behind only Sebastian Giovinco – but it is his symbiosis with Michael Bradley that has been most revolutionary.
“I played with Michael many years ago now, it's fun to [do so again],” said Johnson. “We have similar opinions on how the game should be played, in terms of work rate and passion. Playing next to a guy like that, who is always going to have your back, no matter what, is priceless.”
“Throughout the summer and into the stretch,” continued Johnson, “those relationships become stronger. Not just between myself and Michael, between all of us, and we establish ourselves as a team that can get results, no matter what.”
“We feel good about where we're at; we don't feel satisfied in terms of where we want to go. We can still be better. There's still work to do.”