In the midst of the Portland Timbers' showcase of sizzling second half skill Sunday against the New York Red Bulls, highlighted by headliners Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, there was a player in green on the field making it all possible for the home team with effective drive and gravitas. This man was Will Johnson – situated in the back of Portland's dynamic midfielder, wearing the captain's armband, and establishing himself as one of the key cogs of the new Timbers.
One man who wasn't involved with the Timbers' opening night of the 2013 season was Jack Jewsbury. Hurt, replaced and forgotten, Jewsbury was out of the limelight last Sunday night – out of the relevant on-field captaincy, the starting 11, and no longer the face of the franchise. Will Johnson is the new Jack Jewsbury. This isn't to say Jewsbury is washed up or will never play again – he isn't washed up, and he will play, just not as much or in the same role as in 2011 and 2012 – but there's no denying the similarities between Jewsbury and the man who has kicked him out of the XI in Portland.
Like Jewsbury, Will Johnson is unassuming in appearance and personality. Like Jewsbury, Johnson is a quiet but authoritative leader. Like Jewsbury, Johnson plays a holding midfield position, has a pension for long-range shooting, and, before coming to Portland, was a one-club MLS veteran. Like Jewsbury, Johnson was traded to Portland from a Midwest club in the offseason and named captain of the Portland Timbers.
It could be said that Johnson is just a younger version of Jewsbury. At 26, Johnson certainly has fresher legs than his 31-year-old teammate – but the similarities stop there. Johnson is more talented than Jewsbury and has already accomplished more in football.
Early on in the New York game, with Portland's defense, or one particular defenseman, reeling, and Jeld-Wen Field quieted, Johnson provided back-to-back bone-crunching tackles on Red Bulls players. One was a foul, but the physicality set the tone for the game in the midfield. In the second half, Johnson took over, running the Red Bulls’ older and pricier players, Dax McCarty, Tim Cahill and Juninho out of the midfield discussion and allowing the Timbers to dominate possession and, with it, the game.
With the Timbers employing more offensive-minded players than ever this year – Porter really plays a 4-3-3, and Johnson's midfield mates Diego Chara and Diego Valeri are attackers at heart – a steely player like Johnson is needed to balance out the midfield and provide cover for the team's shaky defense. That's not to say Johnson can't get forward – he had multiple shots and his passing was effective against the Red Bulls. It can't all be flash from Portland, and Johnson is the type of player Porter needs to balance his team.
Earlier in his career, Johnson was exactly the type of player Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kries needed to balance out his team. After starting his career with the Chicago Fire and eventually foraying into the Netherlands, Johnson came back to MLS with RSL in 2008. In his first season back, Johnson won goal of the year for a sublime strike at FC Dallas. The next year, Johnson made the All-Star Game and the following year, Johnson was a key cog in Salt Lake's MLS Cup triumph.
But Johnson was always under-appreciated at RSL, where his flamboyant central midfield partner Kyle Beckerman garnered the majority of attention and glory. Johnson was crowded out of the limelight by a host of players, and when Kries decided to shake things up at Rio Tinto Stadium this summer, Johnson was among the first to go.
Johnson had his pick of which MLS team he wanted to go to. He picked Portland. Johnson wanted to play in front of the Timbers Army, and he wanted to be an integral part of what Caleb Porter was building with the Timbers. The teams got a deal done, and with Johnson now an automatic first-team selection and team captain, many MLS experts think the midfielder, who has already been capped 31 times for Canada, is ready to break out.
Johnson is a glue player. The Timbers dreadful chemistry last year created a toxic environment and led to fighting between coaches and players, fans and coaches, and owners and fans. Skill players like Kalif Alhasson and Diego Valeri are plentiful in soccer. Players like Johnson are harder to find. The new skipper is likable, tough, and a hard worker. The Will Johnson type is on every championship team; an unheralded stalwart who sets the table consistently – providing the assist before the assist for the goal.
At 28, Will Johnson is in the very prime of his career. In Portland, Johnson has respect, cache, and the responsibility to be a leader and big player. The skills are there. As he coolly showed against New York, Johnson has box-to-box efficiency and an important ability to play two ways in the midfield.
Johnson is stepping out of the shadows. He won't do it as quickly or as blatantly as some of his more brilliant teammates – read Diego Valeri – but Porter and Gavin Wilkinson trust Johnson immensely, and have given him the keys to the Timbers kingdom. Mikael Silvestre or Donovan Ricketts, both experienced, talented veterans of the world game who would have been a sound choice to wear the armband this year for Portland. But the honor was given to Johnson – and you don't make a 28-year-old captain unless you think he is going to be with your team for a long time to come.
Just as it did for Jack Jewsbury, a meddling MLS pro who was in and out of the first team with the old Kansas City Wizards, a little faith can go a long way. Of all the Timbers' offseason moves, Will Johnson was their first acquisition. Now, Captain Will is ready to become the humming heart of a playoff team.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports