Canada midfielder Johnson answers his critics

Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson joined Brady & Walker to talk about the World Cup qualifiers, and how he’s pushing through past injuries to help Canada make it to the big stage.

TORONTO—There was not a trace of derision or anger in Will Johnson’s tone of voice.

He didn’t lose his cool, or shoot daggers with his eyes as he went off on an emotional rant. There was none of that. Instead, there was a calm and measured response as he answered the question with great purpose and matter-of-fact articulation.

Johnson has earned 34 caps (29 as a starter) and scored three goals since debuting for Canada’s national team in a friendly against Luxembourg in 2005. He’s been one of the best Canadians to play in Major League Soccer during his previous stint with Real Salt Lake and now with the Portland Timbers, and is a vital player for his country. He’s part of Canada’s 23-man squad that will take on Belize in a pair of FIFA World Cup qualifiers this month, including on Friday at BMO Field.

But Johnson’s commitment to Canada has come into question over the years. His last appearance for the Reds was two years ago at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He broke his leg last September and that sidelined him for eight months, ruling him out for both Portland and Canada. But before the injury he turned down invitations to play in friendlies and attend national team training camps so that he could remain with his pro club.

Johnson came back from the leg injury on May 27 and ended up playing in four MLS games, but he still took a pass on playing for Canada at the Gold Cup, which kicked off in early July, as he didn’t feel quite ready to return to the international game. That raised the ire of some reporters and Canadian fans, already upset over his perceived lack of commitment to the national team.

Johnson makes no apologies for sometimes putting his club before his country, but he maintains that he is firmly committed to Canada, despite the steady flow of criticism he still receives.

“It is what it is. I don’t listen to the noise a whole lot. For the past year it’s been me versus my body. There were a few friendlies and camps where [Portland was] in the playoffs in 2013 where people wanted me to potentially [play for Canada] and I got questions about that. For me, an MLS playoff game is more important than a friendly in Spain or against a small island nation,” Johnson said.

“If people want to hold that against me that’s fine but for me that has nothing to do with being committed to club (over country). That has to do with my career, and taking care of my family and doing what’s right for my projections of where I want to go in my career.”

Johnson also feels that media and fans don’t appreciate the “give and take” aspect that players have to maintain with both their pro and national sides. Complicating matters is MLS plays through most FIFA international windows, so representing your country isn't always so cut-and-dry.

“I have a great relationship with the Canadian [team], I have a great relationship with Portland, and they have a great relationship [with each other]. But there’s this group of outside fans who maybe don’t quite understand the give and take aspect, and it goes back to my point that without club football there is no potential for international football,” Johnson explained.

In some ways it’s appropriate that Johnson’s first game back for Canada will be at BMO Field. It was there that the veteran midfielder broke his right leg in the first minute of an MLS game following a shin-on-shin collision with Toronto FC defender Mark Bloom last September.

He underwent surgery and then worked his way back to full fitness during what was a mentally challenging rehabilitation. Now he’s returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. But the 28-year-old native of Toronto has moved on.

“I’m at peace with the injury. It is what it is. It frustrates me sometimes when it holds me out of games still almost a year later. But I have no regrets. I’ve had a lot of time to put that behind me and I have. So for me, it’s always a celebration to come back here and get back out on the field where I had the worst moment of my career and just try to improve upon that, and make better moments and better memories,” Johnson offered.

Although he’s been in training camps under Benito Floro, Friday will be the first time Johnson will get to play for the Spanish coach—Floro officially took over the reins of the national team shortly after Johnson’s last appearance for Canada.

“It’s very tactical [under Floro]. Definitely very disciplined—all about shape, positioning, getting every detail right and he’s very particular. It’s a very straight-edge [approach] and the guys have bought in,” Johnson explained.

“Within that structure that he’s given us hopefully we can express our individual talents and freedoms a little bit to find a way create some more goals.”

Johnson is also impressed with the new crop of youngsters who have come into the Canadian team since his last game, including Cyle Larin and Tesho Akindele.

“This group of youngsters is probably more talented, and has more resources and opportunities than we had when we were coming through the ranks... That’s a good starting point. Now we have to take that talent and turn it into something more than what’s been done in the past,” Johnson stated.