Fiery. Competitive. Thorn in your side. Intense.
These are some of the first words that come to mind when describing new Timbers midfielder Will Johnson. To steal from Charlie Sheen, however, “winning,” is another one.
With a career that includes time growing up in the Blackburn Rovers youth system, playing in the Eredivisie with Dutch side Heerenveen, winning an MLS Cup in Real Salt Lake in 2009, to playing in a CONCACAF Champions League final, Johnson has learned to channel much of that energy into becoming one of the most intimidating, and, at least to opponents, irritating central midfielders in the league. He gets under the other team’s skin, which, combined with his energy and passion, endears him to his home supporters.
Following the 2012 MLS season, Real Salt Lake looked to alter its roster dramatically. In a testament to what he has meant to the Claret-and-Cobalt, Johnson was given the luxury of having a say in his final destination. A Canadian international, he and his young family chose Portland not only for the ambition of the club but also for the exciting possibilities of the city.
As the 2013 preseason nears, Johnson wants to have a definitive bearing on his new squad with an eye towards building an elite club. Bringing the pluck and moxie he possesses in spades will only aid in his quest. For Timbers fans, that presents an exciting possibility.
WATCH: Will Johnson on opening of preseason
There were a number of changes afoot in Real Salt Lake this offseason with lots of player movement. In your situation, you had the luxury of choosing where you wanted to go. What was the single biggest reason you choose Portland?
Will Johnson: The single biggest reason? I don’t know if there was just one. It was really a mix of a few different things. Obviously for my wife and my daughter, I have to make sure that they’re happy where we’re going and they were very excited about Portland from it being a cool city with nice people—somewhere that we really wanted to live. So we balanced that approach with obviously me valuing the soccer club. I wanted to go to a club that was ambitious. One that I felt was on the upswing, that was run the right way by the right kind of people that I wanted to work with. I wanted to go to, as Mr. Paulson calls it, SoccerCity, U.S.A., and that was a big factor in wanting to come to play for fans that care about their team and who are passionate. I think the three main reasons, to kind of summarize it, are: The family lifestyle of Portland and the community. Being a well-run club with good soccer people involved. And playing for a team with fans that care about their team. All those things were very important to me and Portland fit those requirements.
How much did Timbers head coach Caleb Porter weigh in your decision-making process? Have you spoken with him?
WJ: I’ve spoken to Caleb a few times and I’ve spoken to a lot of people about Caleb. Obviously, he’s a Midwest guy as well, which I like. When I finally spoke to him, he validated all of my beliefs about him as a coach and a person. We kind of talked and things seemed to fit in line with how we are both very competitive, looking forward to a new challenge. Obviously he is new to the league and I’m new to Portland so hopefully, there’ll be a lot of good people there to help us both out—which I know there are.
You’ve had a full career so far that includes numerous caps with the Canadian national team, you won an MLS Cup, went to an CONCACAF Champions League final, spent time as a kid in England, and played in the Eredivisie in Holland. What does that range of experiences help bring to the table? What about them do you value?
WJ: I think a lot of the challenges over the years have shaped me into a more mature player that doesn’t get carried away when we’ve won a game. Because obviously, one game doesn’t really do much for you.
I’ve seen it all. I’ve won things. I’ve lost games in humiliating fashion as well. I’ve kind of seen it all in a lot of different countries all over the world. I’m hoping that I can bring the qualities of a winning club and a winning culture and try to exemplify those qualities for the young guys to see and act like we can become an elite club because all the pieces are there. It’s just for the players to go out and come together and become a resilient team—one that wins on the road. I know we’ll have no problem winning at home for sure.
The word that often comes up when describing your reputation is “fiery.” That you’re the kind of player you want to have you on your team, but are also the one other teams hate to play against. Would you agree with that description and if so how does that element of your game help you?
WJ: Obviously, off the field, I try to be polite and respectful to everybody. But the reality of the business is, we’ve got to win and we’ve got to find ways to win quickly. A lot of my fieriness and competitiveness just comes from the business. I love playing professional soccer and I want to do it for a long time and I know the number one way to do that is to play for winning organizations and contribute in that fashion.
So sometimes, especially when I was younger, I definitely have gotten carried away and done things that don’t look the best—especially to away supporters. I know that there are many supporters on different teams around the league that don’t particularly like me but that comes with the territory. I’m not looking to please everybody. I’m looking please my coaches and my fanbase. That’s the kind of mentality that I bring to it. I’ve found that no matter what you do, if you give everything you’ve got, 100%, and you’re willing to fight and suffer and go down fighting in games that you lose, the supporters always will have your back. I had a great relationship with the fans in Salt Lake and I’m sure I’ll have no problems mending the bruised relationships with the Timbers supporters as well. We’re all competitors and I think we all understand that.
Hopefully, a few of the guys here are excited that I’m coming to Portland to antagonize other teams and not them anymore. (Laughs.)
What are you most looking forward to in your first home game wearing the Timbers kit?
WJ: Just feeling the atmosphere as a home player as opposed to an away player. I think it was always fun to go up and play there—everybody gets excited when they go and play Portland in Portland. But as far as putting on that jersey and feeling that support for you and for your team, I think that that’s going to be pretty special, pretty cool. I’m excited to look forward to that but there’s a lot of work to be done in-between there and now. It’s nice to have a little end vision or goal for the end of this whole preseason.