By Ridge Mahoney
There's not much ambiguity in Will Johnson's game: after he gets under your skin and into your head, Portland gets the ball into the net, one way or the other. So it came to pass again last Saturday in Vancouver. The Timbers came back twice against their Cascadia Cup rivals to earn a 2-2 tie. Johnson scored the first equalizer from the penalty spot, and set up the second with a high lob that Jose Valencia turned into his first MLS goal.
The tie ran Portland’s unbeaten streak to 10 games and upped its total of deadlocked games to seven, the most in MLS. A point on the road is valuable, but not necessarily the team’s objective away from home.
“This isn’t a team that wants to be satisfied with points on the road,” said Johnson last month after Portland conceded a late goal to wind up tied, 1-1, at San Jose. “We want wins. It’s good to have that hunger. If we weren’t disappointed I’d be a little bit worried.
“I don’t think we’re looking at that, the undefeated stuff. If you tied 34 games you’re not even going to come close to making the playoffs. Undefeated streaks are what they are. It’s better to win three and lose two than it is to tie five. They’re kind of fun but really, when you look between the lines, it’s not really that great, is it?”
Great or not, the Timbers in their first dozen games under Coach Caleb Porter are re-energizing their zealous fan base, which in 2012 suffered through a coaching change and miserable season (8-16-10, minus-22 goal difference). Shortly after leaving the University of Akron, Porter sent allocation money to Real Salt Lake in exchange for Johnson, and then named the Canadian international team captain.
“Obviously I’m very excited for the responsibility I have of leading this group of guys,” said Johnson, a key cog in RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup title and its long run of success. “It’s a lot of fun, but we’re still trying to figure things out and grind out results and slowly but surely we’ll get it right.
“Caleb’s a good coach. We see eye-to-eye on a lot of the same soccer tactics, a-get-the-ball-down, possession-style of soccer. It’s a lot of fun to play, so I love playing for him. His style suits me and suits this group of guys, so we’ll keep working.”
The plan seems to be working for Porter and Johnson and the Timbers. He leads the team in goals with five, yet four other players have at least three. The partnership of Johnson and Colombian Diego Chara in support of Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri, who came to MLS at the recommendation of Chara, has proven to be productive. Valeri leads the team with four assists and has quickly established himself as one of the league’s better playmakers.
“They’re friends and they’re both very similar,” says Johnson. “Great guys, easy to play with, I mean every time you get the ball, Diego just turns and makes a difficult pass that most players in this league can’t make. It’s pretty easy to play with him.
“He wants the ball every time, he never shies away from it. Great guy, great teammate, it’ll be fun for people to get to know him over the course of the season and hopefully for many more after that.”
First signed by MLS as an 18-year-old in 2005, the same year he debuted for Canada, Johnson played just six games for the Fire before heading to the Netherlands to play with Heerenveen and on loan with De Graafschap. He returned to MLS in 2008, and went to RSL via a trade with Chicago in exchange for two draft picks.
Johnson played 112 games for RSL as it won a league title and narrowly lost the 2011 Concacaf Champions League title to Monterrey of Mexico. The switch to Portland and Porter’s 4-3-3 formation has opened up his game and increased his responsibilities.
The bite and edge he brings to the game upsets opponents. Quakes forward Alan Gordon picked up a three-game suspension for directing a gay slur at him. Johnson admits goading Gordon with a remark of his own, the details of which he didn’t divulge.
Gordon sat out the game at Buck Shaw because of what he had said to Johnson a week earlier at Jeld-Wen Field during a 1-0 Timbers victory. Johnson scored that goal with a free kick. The Timbers look at the four points accrued from two games with San Jose as vital in their quest for the playoffs, perhaps at San Jose’s expense.
“I didn’t think a lot of what happened last week was going to boil over tonight,” said Johnson after the 1-1 tie with the Quakes. “It’s just the nature of the game and when you play the same guys two games in a row, it’s bound to get as physical as it did.
“Tensions are high and then obviously the incident from last weekend’s game, some of the guys were saying some stuff about my role in that. That’s why they said they were getting after me. That’s fair play, I can handle it.”
Johnson has already surpassed his goal total in any of his seasons with RSL, and twice has burned opponents by arrowing free kicks into the top corner. Yet providing tough defense and supplying good passes are also on his to-do list. Portland, which allowed 56 goals in 34 games last year, has conceded 14 in 12 games and posted four shutouts so far in 2013, but has lost French central defender Mikael Silvestre to a torn ACL.
Getting into the playoffs requires talent and toughness and experience. Johnson ticks off all those boxes and at 26, can be a force for years to come.
“He’s playing great,” says Porter. “He’s kind of our engine room, the guy that does a lot of the little things that helps us win games, picks up loose balls and does a lot of the dirty work. He’s a tremendous leader for these guys and brings a lot of experience and confidence, and brings an edge and a refuse-to-lose, a will to win, no pun intended.”