Will Johnson’s path back to Canadian national team not an easy one

Orlando-City-midfielder-Will-Johnson

Orlando City midfielder Will Johnson (4)and Toronto FC forward Ryan Telfer (54) battle for control of the ball during first half MLS action in Toronto on Friday, May 18, 2018. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Canada Soccer threw a lot of people for a loop earlier this year when it fired men’s team coach Octavio Zambrano and replaced him with John Herdman.

Few saw this coming, including members of the Canadian men’s squad and the women’s team, who Herdman coached from 2011 to 2018. With most people still in a state of shock, Herdman quickly went to work, talking with players on the men’s side, anxious to get their feedback on the state of the program and what improvements they feel should be made.

His longest conversation, close to two hours over the phone, was with Will Johnson. That Herdman spent so much time with Johnson, a 31-year-old native of Toronto, was hardly a surprise. The veteran midfielder has scored four goals in 43 appearances for Canada (38 as a starter) since making his national team debut in 2005. Johnson has seen more than most other players on the Canadian roster, and he offered a frank evaluation of the national team set-up during his chat with Herdman.

“He’s all in. His attention to detail, for sure, is what stood out from talking to John. The questions he asked and the answers he gave me when I asked him stuff, and the conversation we had was in-depth. It was at a level that I haven’t seen before with the national team. He’s going to leave no stone unturned in pursuing his vision. The way he talks, and the way he carries himself is impressive,” Johnson recently told Sportsnet.

For his part, Herdman was equally impressed with Johnson.

“I love his honesty. He’ll say it how it is. I was able to dig a little deep and understand some to the things that he’d like to see change. … What I loved about it was that he was brutally honest. There was no bulls**t. I think what he got back from me was exactly the same. It was one of those conversations where both guys just told it how they saw things,” Herdman told Sportsnet.

Johnson hasn’t represented his country since last June, when he turned out for Canada in a friendly against Curacao in Montreal. He was invited by Herdman to take part in a training camp in Spain ahead of the Reds’ exhibition game against New Zealand back in March. Instead, he turned down the invite so that he could focus on his MLS commitments with Orlando City, where he’s started in 12 of the team’s 13 games this season.

“I’ve said it to him, that the door is going to stay open for him. With Will, he’s a very experienced player, at club and country level. He’s a consistent pro in MLS, and he’s someone I’ve watched and will continue to watch closely,” Herdman admitted.

Johnson maintains he remains committed to playing for Canada, should he get the call again, but for now his top priority is Orlando, where he’s been used as right fullback this campaign.

“I like the challenge of defending, and learning a new position. It’s been a baptism of fire. It’s been a fun ride so far,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s path back towards the national team isn’t an easy one, though. He feels the Canadian player pool is deeper than it’s ever been, giving Herdman a greater number of options from which to choose.

“John has a good opportunity [to succeed] because we’ve got all these good young players coming through. There’s so many good young Canadian players who are fun to watch, and I think we’re close to turning the corner here,” Johnson enthused.

“I want to be back [for Canada]. I feel John is an honest man, and he’s going to take the best guys. Competition for the squad is what we need. We need to select the top 23 Canadian players. We can’t pick players based on reputation, or potential. We need to pick the guys who are in form and are going to get the job done for Canada.

“If John feels I’m one of those guys, I will answer the call. If he doesn’t, I will cheer on the younger generation,” Johnson stated.

Whether Herdman will recall Johnson remains to be seen. However, a potential return to the national team does raise an ethical issue.

Last September, Johnson was arrested on a misdemeanour domestic battery charge stemming from an incident with his ex-wife Caroline. The couple was in the process of going through a divorce at the time. Major League Soccer suspended Johnson pending investigations by the league and the Orlando Police Department.

Johnson ended up missing five games for Orlando and was later reinstated by MLS after a criminal investigation by the Orange County Sheriff’s office ended with the prosecution deciding not to pursue charges, provided he completed a 26-week domestic violence counselling program. MLS also conducted its investigation into the incident, and concluded that the evidence did not “establish that Johnson physically assaulted his wife,” but that his “overall conduct the night of the incident was not consistent with league policy.”

Johnson now shares custody of his daughter Arabella and son Jaxx with his former wife. He said both children are doing great, and that he’s firmly focused on being a father outside of his duties for Orlando City. He added that there’s a lot of speculation surrounding the incident with his ex-wife, but that he knows “what really took place.”

Should Johnson be disqualified from representing Canada in light of what happened? It’s a question that Sportsnet posed directly to Herdman.

“I think we’re a country of forgive and forget. There’s a couple different sides to the story, but from what I know of it, no charges were pursued. Will has moved on from the situation. From my side, if there was something there, if he was found guilty or if he was still under investigation, morally it wouldn’t be right for him to represent Canada. But there isn’t anything there at this point,” Herdman answered.

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