Bridgeview, Ill. » Will Johnson grew up around here, rooting for the Chicago Fire, attending all of their games, and dreaming about playing for them one day.
When he finally did, however, his experience came nowhere close to measuring up to his hopes -- which is why the Real Salt Lake midfielder is particularly motivated to beat the Fire in the MLS Eastern Conference final tonight at Toyota Park.
"I want to kill 'em," he said.
Though he remains friends with several of the Fire players -- including forward Chris Rolfe , midfielders Logan Pause and John Thorrington , and defender C.J. Brown -- the 22-year-old Johnson remains bitter about the way he said the organization treated him.
After playing sparingly in six games for the Fire as a rookie in 2005, he wanted to try his luck in Europe. But the Fire insisted on picking up an option on his contract, he said, only to have former coach Dave Sarachan later lie to him in an attempt to force Johnson into accepting a dramatic pay cut.
Johnson refused, and the team released him.
"It ended up the best thing that ever happened," Johnson acknowledged, because that freed him to play two lucrative years for SC Heerenveen and De Graafschap in the Dutch Eredivisie before joining RSL last year.
But he remains annoyed that the situation cost him about six months of playing time due to what he said was its calculated timing between transfer windows, and that Sarachan ruined his admiration for the organization. Sarachan was fired in the middle of the 2007 season.
"It was a bad time for the Fire," Johnson said. "Not a fun time to be a part of the organization."
Johnson isn't the only RSL player with Chicago connections.
Midfielder Andy Williams played for the Fire in 2003 and 2004 -- he led them in assists both seasons, and guided them to the MLS Cup title game in '03 -- while midfielder Ned Grabavoy and general manager Garth Lagerwey both grew up in the Chicagoland area.
But Johnson probably has the strongest feelings about tonight's reunion.
"After what they did to me," he said, "it's an extra-special game for me."