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The Card That Jason Kreis Needed in Orlando: Will Johnson

The two-time MLS Cup Champion brings experience in a midfield that still is getting acquainted with MLS style.

New York City FC v Orlando City SC Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Orlando City’s first game of the season is under its belt. With the win against NYCFC, the Lions seem to be starting off on the right foot. The lineup was nearly as predicted, but one specific player had a new role in the game. When we looked at the lineup and saw who was playing right back we all had a surprise. Will Johnson… what? Yes, we were all shocked about it.

Johnson, who is used to playing in the heart of the pitch, has mainly been deployed as a box-to-box holding midfielder throughout his career. But because of injuries Head Coach Jason Kreis had to put the Canadian at right back in the season debut. This displayed the trust in a coach-player relationship that goes back to the Real Salt Lake time they both shared.

During his four seasons in Utah, Kreis relied a lot on Johnson to make his midfield work in a rhythm that helped the Western Conference club reach four finals (two MLS Cups, one CONCACAF Championship and one U.S. Open Cup). Johnson was important in the control of the defense/offense transition for the team. He had a great connection with midfielder Javi Morales and forward Yura Movsisyan during this time. The transitions Johnson provided were key for the team to control the game and allowed the athletes to play with high pressure during parts of the matches when needed.

So why should we be excited about the relationship between Johnson and Kreis? Let’s make note that Kreis came to the Lions halfway through the 2016 season, and it’s difficult for a coach to assemble a team to his liking during just four months of league play and training sessions. So, the first full preseason under Kreis was a great way for the manager to fit the players to their new roles and help them adjust to new tactics. And that’s where Johnson helps make this transition easier and quicker for the coach. During his first interview as an Orlando City player, Johnson made these remarks about his chance to play with Kreis again:

“Coach Kreis is a guy I know, a guy I trust, and I guy I work well with. He pushes people in a positive way to get the best out of them, so I’m excited to be part of his project. He is a guy I have a great deal of respect for and, for him to bring me here and believe in me, that means a lot to me. This is an opportunity to show him I am all in, that I am right there next to him to try to turn this club into a playoff-type club, and that is something that excites both of us.”

The best part is that Johnson can build a new relationship with Kaká, Antonio Nocerino, and Jonathon Spector, all of whom have vast international experience. He has a young extraordinary forward in Cyle Larin to create and finish play after play.

Will Johnson, after winning the MLS Cup during his stay in Portland and reaching the championship match with Toronto FC last season, is set to be an example for the team. Note that he wore the captain’s armband after Kaká had to be substituted.

The native of Toronto feels more comfortable playing from box to box. He’s a guy that will make a lot of sacrifices to play defense, like we saw in week one. He’s also a great shot creator on the other side of the pitch, with quality passing that generates options in the final third. Then add Nocerino next to him, Kaká a few steps forward, and you’ve got a solid, balanced midfield. With so many options in the offensive ranks (adding Rivas and MPG), there are many connections to be made by Johnson to create an attacking nightmare for any team in MLS.

Johnson will play a key role for Orlando City this season. He will be the one to support Kreis’ ideas during the game. With Johnson’s experience, it will seem as if there’s a coach on the field, directing the players, reading the opposition, and creating chances. Orlando City has assembled a team to get in the playoffs this season, and in the same way Johnson did with RSL during 2009 and Portland in 2015, he could be the piece the Lions need to reach the final playoff game.