Sandy • The sting of the loss has worn off, as has the awkwardness of seeing a close friend suddenly sporting forest green. But that doesn’t mean Will Johnson’s days at Real Salt Lake have been abandoned from memory. Notoriously a fan favorite and locker room presence with RSL during the club’s rise to prominence in Major League Soccer, Johnson still captains a rival on the rise in the Portland Timbers.
"It isn’t as strange to see him on the other side of the pitch now when we’re playing those guys," said RSL defender Nat Borchers. "He’s just a guy that never quits. That’s what makes him such a good player."
Age » 27
Position » Midfielder
Hometown » Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Pro career » Chicago Fire (2005), Heerenveen, Netherlands (2006-2008), Real Salt Lake (2008-2012), Portland Timbers (2013-present)
Transaction » Traded by RSL to Portland on Dec. 3, 2012
Portland Timbers at Real Salt lakeSaturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV » CW30
In 2013, RSL and its veteran core eventually became accustomed to seeing Johnson going at them, rather than with them. As the rivalry bloomed, Johnson’s former club ensured his newest club wouldn’t see much success a year ago — RSL went 4-0-2 in all competitions against the Timbers — and that theory will be tested once again Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
And again in the middle of it will be Johnson, the 27-year-old Canadian who became the lifeblood of the 2013 Western Conference regular-season champs.
"He’s the heart of that team," said Javier Morales. "His passion and the way he played, I loved to play with him for those five years. Now he’s doing great in Portland and he’s the captain there. I always say I want the best for Will — except this Saturday."
Originally acquired by RSL in August 2008, Johnson’s style of play eventually became the blueprint for what it takes to succeed in the club’s patented diamond formation. As an outside part of the four-midfielder diamond, Johnson took it upon himself to become a successful two-way player along with former midfielder and current RSL assistant coach Andy Williams.
"He definitely set the bar in terms of work rate out there," said Borchers. "I think the outside of our diamond formation and system is one of the toughest positions to play because you’re asked to cover just a lot of ground."
His aggressiveness offensively, coupled with his relentlessness on defense led him to cementing an outside spot under former coach Jason Kreis. In five years with RSL, Johnson had 149 appearances across all competitions — 138 of them starts.
"I could look at a guy like Will and say, ‘OK, there’s a guy who works great defensively, but also has the energy to do some things in the attack as well,’" said midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who eventually locked down his own spot on the outside of the diamond after joining the club in 2009. "That’s what was asked of those positions."
Stretched with salary-cap constraints following the 2012 season, RSL’s front office was forced to deal Johnson as well as first-team staples Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola.
Now in his second year in Portland, Johnson roams with a different crew in the midfield, along with notable talents such as Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Gaston Fernandez and Diego Chara. In 2013, he had nine goals and five assists and started every match he appeared in. He’ll undoubtedly be leaned upon by coach Caleb Porter and others as the Timbers - six matches into 2014 - come into Rio Tinto Stadium searching for their first win of the year.
"Will Johnson is going to will them to come out and be really competitive," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar.
Which would surprise no one.
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