Several of Will Johnson's former teammates shared the field at Red Bull Arena nearly a fortnight ago. He compared watching the game to a family reunion without his own invitation.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Johnson does not need to worry about maintaining his place in the good graces of his former colleagues even with a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal ahead at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight. His earnest toil in support of the Claret-and-Cobalt for five years fostered plenty of admiration among those who mattered. It shows in the esteem afforded to him by the people who know him best.
Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman operated alongside Johnson in the midfield diamond for much of that time period. Beckerman and Javier Morales garnered much of the credit for their deft work, but Johnson kept the structure intact with his tireless running to cover the gaps and provide the necessary passing outlets. Beckerman understood the sort of work Johnson submitted during his shifts. And he grasps exactly why his former teammate now receives the plaudits he rarely collected with RSL and stands out as one of the prominent members of the MVP discussion after a half-season with the Timbers.
“I think it's more they hadn't noticed (than about any change in his game),” Beckerman said after he and a handful of his RSL teammates played alongside Johnson once more in the MLS All-Star Game last week. “I think he's been doing similar things with us. It's just a different formation. We play a diamond. They play a 4-3-3. He has different responsibilities with them. He's finding himself in more dangerous spots. But he was huge for us and it's great to see him succeed in Portland.”
Johnson landed on his feet in Portland after RSL shipped him out due to salary budget concerns during the close season. The 26-year-old promptly transitioned from supporting player (albeit one with a regular place in the Canadian national team) in a team filled with veterans to a fundamental building block in a team seeking to forge its identity after a winter of upheaval.
The shift from cog to fulcrum isn't an easy one for most players. Johnson spent his time with RSL subjugating to others. He switched his mindset readily when Caleb Porter brought him to the Timbers, handed him the captaincy and told him to stamp his imprint on a team trying to create a model similar to the one he just left.
“I landed in the best possible situation with Caleb coming in,” Johnson said. “We're very compatible. We see eye-to-eye on a lot of different things. I'm very fortunate with the position and the responsibilities with the position and the responsibilities that I've been given with the Timbers. I feel that responsibility has helped me grow into the player that I know I can become.”
As Beckerman rather astutely noted, it is a matter of shifting priorities rather than discovering new talents. Johnson pushes forward more and slots himself into shooting positions more readily because he needs to do so. He converts more often in front of goal (career-high six goals) because he receives more opportunities to do so (more shots this year than in each of his previous three seasons). Diego Valeri – a wildly successful loan signing acquired on a permanent basis from Argentine side Lanús on Tuesday – serves as the primary creative influence, but Johnson still plugs the gaps as he did with RSL. He just adjusts how he does so on and off the field.
“It's different,” Johnson said. “We have very, very good players and a lot of talent in Portland, but we don't have the established veterans like we had in Salt Lake. It's up to me – a guy who has been there, who has won things, who has been successful in this league – to be responsible and try to guide this young group the way Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and those guys showed me the ropes.”
Those efforts have placed Portland firmly in the postseason mix at the halfway point of the season and have shepherded the Timbers through to this last four dates with his former club. The prize for a victory here – a potential final at JELD-WEN Field against Chicago or D.C. United – looms large. And the prospect of finally reuniting with a larger swath of his former teammates – most of whom have lavished him with praise this week – brings his story full circle.
It isn't about Johnson and RSL any more, though. It is now about how Johnson assumes the weight of his new duties and navigates his Timbers through the arduous tasks ahead. His work in Portland – impressive as it is to date – isn't anywhere near done. There are cups to lift and titles to win. He learned the importance of success during his time in Salt Lake City. It is a lesson he carries with him now as he plots his former side's downfall ahead of this welcome reunion and trains his focus on the larger objectives still left to fulfill with his current team.
“It was a complete overhaul (during the winter),” Johnson said. “Nobody knew how long it would take. Everybody's been surprised at how quickly we've been able to jell and become hard to beat. There's no perfect science to getting it right. It's still early. We still haven't accomplished any of our goals that we set out to do. To call it a success at this point is premature.”