CARSON, CALIFORNIA – Canadian midfielder Will Johnson is a pretty happy guy these days.
The New Year has meant a lot of change in Johnson’s life as he was traded from the Portland Timbers to the city where he was born to play for in Toronto FC. It doesn’t happen to often, but there’s reason for optimism on the national team front, too.
But the biggest reason for happiness is that Johnson heads into a new Major League Soccer season fully fit.
“I’m excited to be healthy, to be fit. That, more than anything puts a smile on my face,” Johnson said after Canada wrapped up training at StubHub Center in advance of Friday’s friendly against the United States.
“All this other stuff—getting to play for Toronto FC, hopefully getting to represent Canada [on Friday] and then in March [vs. Mexico] is a bonus in terms of being healthy first and then actually being able to represent an amazing club and an amazing country.”
Johnson, 29, suffered a horrific leg break while playing for Portland at BMO Field against Toronto in September, 2014. And while he finally returned to action in 2015, he wasn’t really fully fit until later on in the year and then found himself in a marginalized role for Caleb Porter’s Timbers.
Johnson admitted that his future likely led outside of the Rose City after Portland won the MLS Cup and those words proved prophetic when Johnson was dealt to Toronto in the off-season in order to bolster an already impressive midfield for the ever-rebuilding TFC.
His national team duties have kept him from Toronto’s pre-season preparations, which recently kicked off in the Los Angeles area, but he did get a chance to meet up with his new club a few days before linking up with the national team.
“I went in for three or four good days of training. I got to meet all the guys and the coaching staff,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited for the next trip and be a part of it the whole time and really start to put some real work into the new season.”
He’ll see plenty of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore while playing for Toronto once the MLS season gets underway. On Friday, they’ll be on opposite sides as both Canada and the United States prepare for World Cup qualifiers in March.
Canada’s quest to qualify for “the Hex”—the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers—and a berth at the 2018 World Cup is in a good place after a win and a draw against Honduras and El Salvador in November, but a daunting task awaits with a pair of marquee games against Mexico in March.
The United States, meanwhile, go home-and-away against Guatemala next month. The U.S. opened its 2016 campaign with a 3-2 win in a friendly over Iceland on Sunday.
“I’ve spoken to Michael a bit but not Jozy yet,” Johnson said. “I haven’t met him but I’m excited to play against guys of their calibre. I’m more excited to play with them once the season starts but it’s business [Friday] night and afterwards we’ll start to prepare for the season."
Johnson is one of the veterans in camp for Canada that features plenty of names that certainly won’t be back in the national team fold in March and likely won’t be regulars anytime soon, if ever.
But there still is enough of the first team that there’s an eye on March’s two games against Mexico while at the same time, continuing to build the talent base and keep an eye on players that they rate.
“Every day, every camp for us is a preparation for the next official games,” Canadian coach Benito Floro offered.
“We’ve focused on working on doing our flat back four correctly and fixing some mistakes with the pressing and finally, our attacking moves.”
Johnson readily admits that points in March won’t necessarily come from anything they do in the game Friday night against the Americans.
But on the verge of a critical few months for the national team and for his club aspirations, there’s never a bad time for a game like this against a good team like the Americans.
“I think it’s more for the staff to evaluate talent and evaluate guys they think that can help us in March,” Johnson said. “As a player who’s been there and done it before it’s a chance to get match fitness and continue to show I’m at the level required to get points in CONCACAF and help the group out and lead by example.”