After a two-year hiatus, Will Johnson is finally set to make his return to the Canadian national team.
But the 28-year-old Portland Timbers captain won’t be going full steam ahead into Canada’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Dominica (June 11 and 16). Coming off of an eight-month injury layoff due to a broken leg, Johnson has played just one game for the Timbers’ first team this season.
Even so, Canadian head coach Benito Floro believes Johnson is a “very important” part of his team, which will also be competing in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“We need to call Will because… we need to teach him our system, our way to prepare a game,” Floro told reporters Tuesday, after unveiling his 23-man roster for World Cup qualifying.
Johnson last played for Canada at the 2013 Gold Cup, when he wore the captain’s armband for a young Canadian team competing under interim head coach Colin Miller. Johnson had to leave during the tournament due to illness, and Floro officially took over as Canada manager the following month.
Johnson, who has 34 caps for Canada, will provide a veteran presence in a midfield that includes youngsters such as Russell Teibert, Jonathan Osorio and Samuel Piette. But don’t expect him to walk back into the starting lineup.
“If it is possible in these two games, we use him 20 minutes, 30 minutes,” said Floro. “Physically, he’s in condition and we need to take advantage of this camp to prepare our team for the Gold Cup.”
Johnson made his first-team debut in a 1-0 win a week ago against D.C. United, following three games for Portland’s USL affiliate Timbers 2, before sitting out Saturday’s game in Colorado to ensure ample recovery time for his healing leg.
After training Wednesday at the team facility in Portland, Johnson said he’s ready and hoping to feature in the TImbers' upcoming match Saturday against the New England Revolution (7:30pm PT; KPDX) and said he wasn’t surprised to get the call from Floro.
“It’s an interesting situation,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a big summer for us. Obviously this is the last competitive camp before the Gold Cup, so I think it kind of makes sense to see where I’m at and see if I fit into Benito’s plans for the Gold Cup. So I’m thankful they’re giving me the opportunity to at least showcase myself.”
Johnson, who noted the roster for the upcoming camp “makes me feel old” and that most of the players who featured the last time he wore the Canada shirt are no longer part of the program, is excited to play with some of the young talent that has made their way up through the youth levels. His leadership qualities are also something he knows make him a valuable part of the team.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before we bump onto to that next level, and I think you’re starting to see that Canadian kids are coming through the ranks, and that’s a good positive sign,” Johnson said. “Now we have to take it a step further and use those kids to build a respectable national team program. … I’m glad that I’m still around as of now, but I’ve got a lot of work to do to earn the respect of these young guys and make sure I get back in this group in a positive fashion.”
While Dominica (ranked No. 165 in the world) isn’t the most imposing opponent for Canada (No. 115), Floro isn’t overlooking them, either. That may have played a part in his decision to turn to an experienced player such as Johnson, even if he isn’t yet back to full fitness.
“We are following Will because he’s training very hard, he’s [played] in the USL team,” said Floro, referring to Johnson’s three games with T2 in April and May. “We need to play both games with a lot of intensity, and I hope my players understand the situation, because it would be very, very bad if we don’t play well.”