Good news for fans of the Canadian national team and the Portland Timbers: Will Johnson is ready to go.
The 28-year-old midfielder made for a somewhat surprising inclusion on Canada’s roster for its upcoming CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers against Honduras and El Salvador. The Timbers captain hasn’t played in over a month, after undergoing a minor operation to remove two screws from his tibia, which had been broken a year earlier.
Late Tuesday, Johnson spoke with MLSsoccer.com over the phone from Canadian training camp, sounding enthusiastic and upbeat about getting back into action for both club and country.
“I feel great, man,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to show people the improvements from where I was mid-summer, coming back from the injury, to where I am now.”
Johnson had been hampered by one of the screws digging into his hamstring tendon, which was restricting his movement. He chose to undergo the procedure to remove them at the end of September specifically so he could be fully recovered for this round of World Cup Qualifying – and for the Timbers’ potential push for an MLS Cup.
Now, after putting in extra work with Nick Milonas, the Timbers' director of sports science, Johnson is fit at precisely the right time: Canada faces Honduras on Friday (7 pm PT; TSN in Canada) and El Salvador on Tuesday; the Timbers have advanced to the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship against FC Dallas.
Johnson says he is “100-percent” certain he would be ready to start one or both games for Canada, if called upon.
“Obviously I haven’t played a game in a while, which is a disadvantage,” he said. “But there is absolutely no reason why I wouldn’t be available for selection for both games.”
Johnson hasn’t featured much for Canada during the past two years, with his broken leg – suffered in a September 2014 game against Toronto FC – playing a big part. He says that injury provided perspective about his career, and how fortunate he feels to be a part of the Canadian team at such a crucial moment.
“It means everything to me,” Johnson said. “It goes back to the old saying, that you don’t really know what you’re missing, until it is actually missing from your life.
“I’m just thrilled to be back around the guys. I’ve enjoyed getting to know [Canadian head coach] Benito [Floro] and trying to understand his style, tactics, formation, all the things he wants us to do.”
The Timbers captain relishes the chance to compete in big games for the national team, and he’s been through a number of them, including Canada’s miserable defeat against Honduras to close out the last cycle of World Cup Qualifying; Johnson called the October 16, 2012 game a “massacre.”
“Everybody who was there will never forget what happened and what it felt like,” he said.
Johnson is encouraged the Canadian team now has a “good, young, fresh group of guys” who weren’t in San Pedro Sula for that blowout. Eleven of the 23 players on Canada’s roster to face Honduras this week had yet to make their senior national team debuts when that game was played – and Johnson feels this group has a chance to make their own mark for Les Rouges.
"I think the future is bright for our country,” said Johnson. “I’m excited that players are now choosing to play for Canada versus other nations they’re eligible for. And you’re starting to see the Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal academies producing players that are going to allow us to compete in CONCACAF.
Part of competing in CONCACAF means dealing with inhospitable conditions down in Central America, either on the field or off of it. Though Johnson expressed his desire to help “bridge the gap” between the team’s veteran core and its younger newcomers, he said the best way for players to learn is through first-hand experience.
“I think the guys handled it well in Belize [a 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying in September]; they got a little taste of what it’s going to be like down there,” Johnson said. “The experiences we’ll have together as a team will help us develop these guys and get them battle-ready for CONCACAF away games.”
Before the away game in El Salvador, there’s the matter of Friday’s home date against Honduras at Vancouver’s BC Place (10 pm ET; TSN in Canada). In the last qualifying cycle, Canada was undone by a 0-0 draw against Honduras at Toronto’s BMO Field, so Johnson knows the importance of earning full points later this week.
“It is a must-win game,” Johnson said. “You have to win your home games and try to nick some points on the road.
“You may only get two or three chances against Honduras in a tough international match, which is what happened last time in Toronto. We couldn’t take the chance on the day. So we just need guys to step up and take those opportunities.”
The team will be hoping for a boost from a large, pro-Canadian crowd at BC Place, a venue that’s hosted lively atmospheres for Whitecaps home games – which Johnson has only experienced as an opponent.
“I’m interested to see whether the Vancouver Whitecaps fans who are also Canadian men’s national team fans are going to cheer me on,” Johnson said, with a chuckle. “Hopefully after we’ve secured three points, I’ll get a few cheers on the way out of the stadium, which will be a nice change from the abuse I usually receive.”