Rafael Ramos had just been sent off. Orlando City had been handed a disadvantage fewer than 30 minutes into the match with the second place Chicago Fire on Sunday night, leaving its already inexperienced back line down a man.
And while there was expected outrage in the stands and on social media, Orlando’s players showed fight and determination that we have not seen before and could be a milestone for the season ahead. The Orlando City squads of old would have let the poor decision snowball, often resulting in insurmountable deficits instead of the 0-0 draw they ground out.
The difference was obvious fairly quickly; just a few minutes after the sending off, Fire defender Brandon Vincent let the ball get away from him at the end line with Will Johnson between him. Johnson shielded away Vincent, who was the Chicago player involved in the inadvertent collision that sent Ramos to the locker room, like normal, until they got near the corner flag. As Vincent came up behind the Canadian captain, Johnson gave him a swift hip check and got a rise out of the crowd.
It was the precursor to a fantastic night from Johnson in every category, particularly effort. Johnson, along with Joe Bendik and Jonathan Spector, were vocal leaders keeping a shorthanded and green side organized to prevent any further damage.
The Orlando City faithful have always rewarded passion and effort above all else, and Johnson has that in spades. The crowd built on the midfielder’s physical display for his teammate and the effort he and the rest of the Lions put forth to salvage a draw. There was an energy in Orlando City Stadium that fed off that and willed the team on to a result. It was a give-and-take environment that started with Johnson near the corner flag and again with Johnson sliding in to prevent a would-be Chicago chance on goal. When adversity struck, it was Johnson that rose to the occasion and delivered.
In part, it’s exactly what Orlando City paid for. The Lions needed veteran leadership and went out to get it in several key areas. They gave Johnson his hefty salary because he’s a proven winner — the three Cup Finals he’s been to in eight years are a testament to that — and his attitude is just as big a piece of that as his skills on the ball. He’s not afraid to literally sacrifice his body to make a play (he broke his leg on the goal that earned Toronto FC the Canadian Championship in 2016), a blue-collar captain that doesn’t get the eye-popping statistics or the accolades. He’s not afraid to get dirty and all he wants to do is win. It’s something that Orlando has noticeably lacked in recent years.
That’s not to say Orlando has not had its share of hardworking players. Adrian Winter, Tally Hall, Darwin Ceren, and Aurelien Collin were fan favorites for what they left on the pitch. Cristian Higuita is still here, crawling after loose balls, and Kreis has brought in a lot of players with that same hardworking mindset. But Johnson has become the emotional rallying point who, on top of his effort, has taken on a leadership element that the others have lacked.
Winter may have buzzed up and down the right flank, doing a lot of similar things to Johnson and scoring his goals through sheer power of will. But Johnson has been more than just a key piece, he’s been the guy that the team looks to, more than worthy of representing Orlando as its captain. Kaká, for all of his positives, is not the fiery heartbeat that the team needs to pick itself up and push on. And Kaká does not need to hand over the armband because of that — it’s almost wholly symbolic at this point — because the team needs several leaders to be successful. And even with Bendik and Spector willing the defense on to success so far this season, they still need that engine in midfield to bring that attitude to the rest of the pitch.
Johnson represents not just veteran depth, but the right veteran depth. Orlando has brought in plenty of players with plenty of pro and even championship experience over the years, and while they have likely had a positive impact on the transition to MLS and the environment behind the scenes, Johnson is doing what they hadn’t been able to; he’s leading by example on the pitch, visibly urging the team on to results. He is instilling not just the desire to win, but also the drive.
Make no mistake about it, Will Johnson is the heart and soul of this Orlando side.