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View from the End Line: Will Johnson

Johnson is a must for this club, and his performances to date solidify him as such.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Orlando City SC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

There are players who are loved, there are players who are cheered, and then there are the group of players who somewhat ride the line between being loved and hated. You can see it in every sport, in every country, and in every league.

Every fan is going to have that one player who they constantly question being on the pitch, be it their apparent work ethic, skill set (or perceived lack thereof), or something they have done either professionally or “personally” to the fandom at large. There are a few players on the Lions’ current roster who could fall into that latter category, and one name comes to mind rather quickly.

However, I would greatly challenge you to take a few minutes to revisit your current perception of the man I am speaking of, because right now, I would bet that the Lions’ season from this point forward is going to greatly benefit from his experience, his drive, and his ability to fill so many positions the pitch. I am absolutely talking about Will Johnson.

Johnson, in his third year with the Lions, has a long history in MLS. He is a two-time MLS Cup champion, winning with Real Salt Lake in 2009 and then with the Portland Timbers in 2015. He has been an MLS All-Star Game three times, getting the nod in 2009 with RSL, then back to back in 2014 and 2015 with the Timbers. Then there was this screamer in 2008:

That is Will Johnson with RSL, scoring what became the Goal of the Year for 2008. It is easy to roll back the tape and wax poetic about what happened 11 seasons ago. What isn’t as simple is reflecting on the past season(s) with Orlando and not getting bogged down in the quagmire that has been the current performance of the team as a whole. For Johnson, that moment unfortunately came two seasons ago, during an incident that will not be rehashed in this article, nor will an indictment of “court of public opinion” be made; however, I will say that in the midst of an eight-match winless streak, and before anyone truly knew what happened, the village was amassing outside of the gates of the front office with pitchforks in hand and torches held high.

Fast forward to the 2019 season, and Johnson is a consistent starter. To date in the 2019 MLS campaign, he has made nine appearances for the club — all starts — and played a full 90 minutes in six of those outings. With Will starting, the Lions currently have a record of 2-4-3. In the matches he has not played in, the club has a record of 2-2-0. What can you deduce from this? Statistically speaking, the sample size is a bit small, but I would say that the club might have pulled points with Johnson on the pitch in the two losses in which he did not play. Those matches were the 2-1 home loss to D.C. United and the latest road loss to Seattle that ended 2-1.

You may be thinking to yourself that his presence could just as easily shift a match that was a win into a draw, using the same logic, but I would argue otherwise, simply based on his performance of late. His form has been very good, and his utilitarian skill set is fitting in nicely with James O’Connor’s current tactics and formation. Regardless of where the lineup has him playing, you can guarantee he will be flying all over the pitch to help make this club successful.

According to WhoScored.com, Johnson is currently the fifth highest graded player on the squad among those who have played a minimum of 360 minutes this season. For reference, 15 players have that many or more for the Lions in 2019. He currently has one assist, that beautiful one-time thread straight to streaking Tesho Akindele after a great pass from Joao Moutinho. It was the goal that started the 5-1 rout of FC Cincinnati this past Sunday. Here are a few more stats to think about:

  • He is fifth on the squad in shots per game, at 1.2. None have hit the back of the net, but it is coming.
  • He is third on the squad with an 85.5% pass completion rating. The only players with higher averages currently are Lamine Sané and Sebas Mendez.
  • He is seventh on the team in aerials won per match.
  • He is 12th on the squad in terms of bad touches (this stat is like golf, the lower the better) and has yet to be dispossessed.
  • He is sixth in terms of tackles attempted per match, and is over 50% successful in them as well as sixth in clearances per match.

Am I trying to make the case that he is one of Orlando’s “best” players? Yes, I actually am, given the context of the above information and a personal understanding of how that information plays into my expectations. I expect every team to have that one tactical player, to have the one over-the-top personality player, a number of role players, and then that one player that is just there, staying quiet and grinding out exactly what they are asked to do, almost avoiding the limelight.

I simply ask you all to look again at Johnson and what he means to the club and the crest. He puts everything out for this club on the pitch every time his name is called. He isn’t perfect, but no one is, and he should not be judged against some lofty expectation or what happened last season. He should be judged and held to how he carries himself, the crest, and this club now.

As it stands right now, more so that ever, I am an absolute fan of Johnson, and want him as a constant in the starting XI. He is the leading candidate for my unsung player of the season so far, just quietly out there doing his job, wherever and however he is asked to do it. And I hope he keeps wearing his emotions on his sleeve, because I have zero doubt he will always leave everything on that pitch for this club, for you, and for me.