Sandy • Will Johnson looked up at the empty seats in the place he’s played so many times before and searched for a way to describe the emotions.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” the Portland midfielder said Tuesday at Rio Tinto Stadium, a day before he faces Real Salt Lake for the first time since he was traded by the club this offseason. “I don’t really have great words for what I’m feeling coming back here. A lot of fond memories here, lots of good positive vibes when I walked in.”
The 26-year-old midfielder played 114 games over five seasons with RSL, helping the club win the MLS Cup in 2009. But bumping up against the league’s salary cap, the Salt Lake front office asked players at the end of last season if they were happy with the club, knowing some drastic moves would have to be made.
“I told them I wanted to stay,” Johnson said.
Of course that’s not how it worked out.
RSL was able to command a sizable chunk of cash in exchange for shipping Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave to New York. Johnson, too, was a valuable commodity.
Players and coaches spoke fondly of Espindola and Olave in the run-up to RSL’s meeting with them in New York late last month. But when talk turns Johnson, there is a special reverence.
“Let’s be honest, he was one of my favorites,” Kreis said. “From the very first day we had in training ... I saw reflections of myself in Will Johnson, in what he puts forth every single day.”
While searching for deals, RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey asked Johnson where he would prefer to land, and the Portland Timbers were one of the player’s top choices.
Johnson saw a rabid fan base and a young coach looking to turn around a club. It was a situation, Johnson said, not unlike the one he came to when he arrived at RSL in 2008.
In Portland, Johnson’s ability to lead by example quickly earned him the captain’s armband, and Johnson and the Timbers are experiencing breakout seasons under new coach Caleb Porter.
While playing on the side of Kreis’ diamond midfield, Johnson was known for his tenacity and his work rate, his willingness to cover ground and win challenges.
“He just never gives up,” RSL’s Nat Borchers said. “There’s just no quit in that guy.”
Johnson, who scored nine goals while with RSL, already has tallied six this season. And the Timbers, who finished above only Chivas USA in the West last season, sit in second place in the conference, behind RSL.
His old teammates have taken notice.
“It’s hard not to watch,” RSL defender Tony Beltran said. “He’s on all the highlight reels.”
Johnson’s homecoming for Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal will be the first of four meetings between his new club and his old one over the next few months.
“We went through a lot of battles here,” he said. “I played over 100 games with this group of guys, and you don’t do that without having a bond, a strong bond. So I’ve got very strong ties to a lot of the guys in that locker room.”
Portland at Real Salt Lake
O U.S. Open Cup semifinal
At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)
Kickoff • 7:30 p.m.
TV • CW30
About RSL • After suffering an embarrassing defeat in the first round of last year’s Open Cup, RSL has placed a high priority on the U.S. tournament this year, advancing to the semifinals for the first time in club history. ... Salt Lake has been fortunate along the way, drawing only lower-league clubs up to this point and wining each coin flip, ensuring home matches throughout the tournament. ... If RSL beats Portland, it would host the Open Cup championship in October. ... After coming off the field in the first half Saturday at Colorado, midfielder Javier Morales is expected to be available for selection Wednesday. ... Outside backs Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran also are expected to return to RSL’s starting lineup.
About Portland • Captained by former RSL midfielder Will Johnson, who has scored six goals and notched three assists on the year. ... First-year coach Caleb Porter has helped the Timbers rebound quickly, going from second to last in the West a year ago to fighting RSL for a spot atop the table this season. ... Midfielder Diego Valeri is one of the league’s best playmakers and leads Portland with eight assists.
Portland at RSL
O Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • CW30