Not many people called this one at the beginning of the season. Even the brain trust here at The Mane Land didn’t predict it. Sorry, Gavin. Will Johnson has played every minute of Orlando City Soccer Club’s 2017 season — as the starting right back.
And so far, it’s worked. Jason Kreis said this week that it wasn’t his in his plans to pair Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas this season, but Kreis does deserve credit for plugging Johnson in at RB — of course, Johnson deserves some credit too.
Johnson was signed in the off-season as a versatile midfielder. Injuries to Kevin Alston and Rafael Ramos in the weeks leading up to the opener put Kreis in a difficult spot. We didn’t guess that Johnson would slide into the RB position. But here we are.
Johnson ran his socks off in both the opener and the recent win against the Philadelphia Union. Both wins had a solid “team-win” feel to them, so it’s easy to overlook just how hard some players have worked. Johnson is one of those players. He has been a key contributor to two strong defensive performances from the back four, something fans were begging for at the beginning of the season.
Johnson’s stats support his importance to the team in these early games. He is tied with Jonathan Spector for the most accurate passer in the back four, completing 75% of passes over two games. He made six clearances and leads the team with four tackles in the first two games.
Johnson’s time at RB this season highlights what he brings to Orlando City: tactical awareness, professionalism, and competitiveness. These attributes allow Johnson to be effective at RB but also as a defensive or holding midfielder, as well as a winger. His role at RB suggests that Kreis trusts Johnson to put in a good shift just about anywhere.
With the arrival of Scott Sutter, we can expect that Johnson’s tenure at RB may come to a close once Orlando returns to action after the break. Kreis may decide to start Johnson at RB one more game before he hands the reigns over to Sutter, but probably not any longer than that — why else would Kreis and company have brought in an experienced, European RB in if they didn’t think he could do the job in MLS?
Once Sutter relieves Johnson of his RB duties, where does the Canadian move in Orlando’s starting XI? The natural landing place for Johnson is in center midfield alongside Antonio Nocerino. Servando Carrasco has done nothing wrong in the first two games to lose his starting spot. He leads the team with an 89% successful passing rate, but Nocerino edges him out in the depth chart at center midfield at the moment.
Cristian Higuita may be the one who suffers for playing time with Sutter joining the team, as Carrasco may become the first midfielder used off the bench. Either way, Kreis will have options to choose from in midfield, as long as the injuries stay away.
If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the unexpected happens. So far, Orlando has been able to deal with the unexpected through Johnson’s versatility. Kreis knows what he’s getting when he needs Johnson to fill a gap in the roster. And it’s Johnson’s willingness that is winning our trust as well.