With all the moves Orlando City has made this offseason, some of the veteran guys have slipped a bit on the depth chart. If there is a particular position area that has improved the most, the midfield would have to be that spot. With very little depth and a lack of starters it made sense for the front office to build up the middle of the park but what will happen to some of the guys who were here last season?
With many of the older midfielders from last season not returning, Will Johnson is one of the few that has stuck around. Johnson had a rocking start to the season last year starting 23 times last season and scoring one goal as well as adding two assists in the first five games of the season. He would end the year with two goals and three assists, eclipsing over 2,000 minutes for the Lions.
During the season he also slid into the right back spot for three games prior to Scott Sutter’s arrival and due to injury concerns, and he held the armband for the team 12 times. So, at this rate, it would be hard to argue that he wasn’t a large part of this team. So why is Johnson not getting the credit he deserves? His off-the-field issues are the only piece that fits but with last season behind us it’s time for Johnson to turn the page.
Johnson had a rough middle of the year dealing with some personal issues due to an arrest for the Canadian in September. Though he was released that day and no charges were ever brought against him, Major League Soccer suspended Johnson five games which affected the latter half of his season. However, after the league completed its investigation, Johnson was allowed to return for the Lions and was able to play in the final home game of the season. Due to yellow card accumulation, Johnson was then suspended again for the final game of the season.
What do we expect from Will Johnson this year?
Now that the 2017 season is behind us, I think it’s time for us to look forward and embrace the players that are on the roster. Orlando City shed a lot of players who either did not fit the system or did not play to the level the coaching staff expected. Some of the remaining pieces have been the core of this team consisting of Joe Bendik, Dom Dwyer, Jonathon Spector, Yoshimar Yotun, and Johnson. This should signal to everyone that Orlando City is looking to use the veteran every way that it can.
Orlando City is much deeper then it was last season. The Lions have added pieces such as Sacha Kljestan, Uri Rosell, Cam Lindley, Josué Colmán, Jose Villarreal, and Justin Meram, and Dillon Powers was brought back. With all the additions, this buries guys like Richie Laryea, Tony Rocha, Pierre Da Silva, Cristian Higuita and in some cases, Johnson as well. However, I argue out of that entire group, Johnson could be the breakout this season and return to his former prime.
Johnson has one thing most of those other guys don’t: position flexibility. To begin the year, Johnson played right back for three games. He proceeded to play 11 times as a right midfielder, five times in a “double pivot” (two defensive midfielder set), two times as a left midfielder, and two times at the attacking midfielder spot. This is not to say he is a star at every one of those positions but, if we were to look at his match ratings, he performed fairly well.
Johnson averaged 6.9 for the entire season, which was third on the squad. Alongside his versatility, Johnson’s ability to be a bulldog in midfield is something, even with the additions, Orlando City needs for this upcoming season. But what better way to understand Johnson than to hear his own words? In his recent media day interview, he spoke about what this season means to him and what his goals are for the 2018 season.
”I think you start at a basic level to try to be available for selection every week. Be fit for all 34 games, perform at a high level in training every week, and make sure you are available for selection. I think that needs to be the goal, individually, for all of our guys. I think for me at this point, I want to see this team win. I’ll do anything to see that happen and I think that is the kind of culture we are creating here, both on and off the field. This team needs to win, this team needs to be competitive, this team needs to be something our supporters can be proud of.”
This preseason has been a great one for Johnson, bagging three goals and one assist in three preseason scrimmages. He was a part of a “leadership core” that Jason Kreis hopes to grow throughout the season, looking for veteran players to assist with bringing a winning mentality to the club.
Johnson is someone to watch, especially in the first few games, with Kljestan out. Depending on what formation Kreis runs, we could see Johnson pushing for minutes and even retaining a spot when Kljestan returns. Even if Johnson comes off the bench, he could shut down a game for Orlando City, something the team has struggled to accomplish in years past. It will be interesting to see what position Johnson will play this year, and whether there could be an opportunity for him to be more attacking with his recent goal form.
I, for one, hope that Johnson can continue to push the guys around him and even put himself in a place where not only is he successful, but the entire team is successful.