It’s a return home for Orlando City’s Canadian contingent Wednesday night at BMO Field in Toronto. Cyle Larin has been back to his hometown several times over in a purple shirt, but for Will Johnson, it will be the first time he sees his old club, Toronto FC, in his new colors.
Johnson only spent a single season playing for the Reds before signing with Orlando as a free agent, but the time he spent there didn’t go according to plan. After suffering a broken leg while scoring the goal that secured the Canadian Championship for TFC, Johnson lost his starting place. After only starting one of Toronto’s six playoff games en route to an appearance in the MLS Cup final, the Canadian was looking for greener pastures. Will was blunt about his feelings for the Eastern Conference Champions, telling the Toronto Star:
“Clint (Irwin) got hurt, they didn’t go out and get another goalkeeper. Michael (Bradley) got hurt, they didn’t go get another centre mid. Seba (Giovinco) got hurt, they didn’t go get another striker. For whatever reason, (TFC coach) Greg (Vanney) didn’t give me the same fair shake he gave everybody else who got hurt. And especially the way I got hurt, making the sacrifice for the club, made it an easy decision for me to walk away.”
And even though he quickly claimed to regret those comments, there must be some extra motivation for him upon returning to the club he felt spurned him. Orlando will need every bit of that fire after just one day of preparation in training on a short week. Orlando City’s need for veteran leadership on the road is paramount to its success away from the friendly confines of Orlando City Stadium. And while Johnson has been one of the emotional leaders throughout this season, expect him to kick it up a notch on Wednesday. After all, he’s been the heart of the team so far.
“You could see how quickly Johnson wants to close things down and how much effort he’s willing to give, the capacity for the running is top, top level,” Head Coach Jason Kreis told OrlandoCitySC.com. “And just a real sense of urgency when we’re under some stress. Those are the reasons why you bring a Will Johnson in and I think his attitude and his work rate are infectious.”
The Lions will need that work rate going up against Toronto and Greg Vanney’s vaunted 3-5-2 formation. Johnson and Cristian Higuita will be instrumental in closing down the wide play of Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards. Toronto is capable of stretching Orlando from sideline to sideline as well as overwhelming them through the middle. The rotation of the diamond to cope with the strength of Toronto’s midfield — predominantly Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez — will be crucial to cutting off the passing lanes and keeping the ball away from the Reds’ dynamic duo of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore up front.
Orlando has struggled historically against Toronto, winning only once through two years while allowing 15 goals in six matches. This year’s Orlando City side has proved that it isn’t like its predecessors, but Toronto will still be more than a handful for even the most stalwart of defenses.
It helps that Johnson has been the emotional and physical workhorse of the midfield since switching back from his cameo at fullback to begin the year. Orlando’s offense has noticeably improved and Will has tallied two assists (tied for the team lead) and a spectacular goal, helping propel the Lions to the top of the table. He may not have the captain’s armband on tonight, but he will still be a vocal presence in the middle of the park and a constant threat to TFC’s three defenders as well as a harassing force on defense. His 20 tackles this season put him among the best on the team and his ability to buzz around the field and maintain a consistent amount of pressure will be paramount for the Lions.
Tonight will also be a test for how much Johnson has left in the tank. After all, the 30-year-old has played every minute so far this season. But with something personal on the line for the Canadian international, chances are he’ll dig deep and pull out a performance. Orlando City will need that spirit to get a result north of the border.