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2019 May Be Will Johnson’s Redemption Tour

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The Canadian midfielder has long endured some Orlando City fan ire, but he’s winning back many fans with his relentless play this season.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What do we know about Will Johnson? The Canadian-born midfielder came to Orlando City in December of 2016 with a two-year contract with an option to extend for a third year.

Before his time here in Orlando, Johnson was first signed by the Chicago Fire as a discovery player. He spent some time with Heerenveen, making 14 appearances as a substitute, before making his way to Real Salt Lake. While at Real Salt Lake, Johnson was selected to the 2009 MLS All-Star Game against Everton, played 45 minutes against the LA Galaxy in the 2009 MLS Cup win, and won Goal of the Year in 2008 for his goal against FC Dallas (minute 2:28 in the video).

In 2012, Johnson was traded to the Portland Timbers, where he spent a few months as team captain. After winning an MLS Cup with Portland, he was traded to Toronto FC in December of 2015, where he scored his first goal for them against his former club, Portland. In June of 2016, Johnson scored the game-winning goal for the Canadian Championship in the 95th minute. On the play he fractured his tibia after crashing into the Whitecaps’ keeper.

That brings us to his time here. After his achievements with former clubs, Johnson seemed to be the perfect fit for Orlando City. In his first season with the club, Johnson made 23 appearances, playing 2,057 minutes. The midfielder scored twice, had three assists, had an average pass success rate of 83.5%, and whoscored.com rated him a 6.9 for the overall season. He was suspended for five matches at the end of that season as police and MLS investigated a potential domestic violence incident. In the end, the prosecution did not press charges, and this may have been the beginning of the Johnson’s spiral into fan hatred.

Cancel culture is very real. If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s when someone does, says, or posts something to social media, that is in poor taste. The fallout from there is significant. Athletes, entertainers, and even YouTube stars lose fans, credibility, and sponsorships as part of the cancel culture (think: Tiger Woods’ fall from grace). It’s a place from which very few can climb back.

There is no question that the majority of Orlando City’s fan base are loyal to the team. We have to be with the seasons we’ve endured, but there is a small percentage of “fans” that tear apart players. You see it from the taunting and bashing of Justin Meram while he was here. Antonio Nocerino went through it. The latest targets, Sacha Kljestan and Dom Dwyer, are starting to see a mild form of it. Throwing nothing but negativity at players does nothing to help the mental state of their game play. I’m a loyalist — a Hufflepuff if you will — by nature. It’s my belief that when you celebrate success, and praise your (insert staff, co-workers, children, or dogs) you get a different level of effort in return.

Johnson’s 2018 season saw 26 appearances, 2,195 minutes of play, one goal, one assist, and a pass success rate of 84.5%. These statistics, however, are not what people remembered of WillJo’s 2018 season with the Lions. Do you know where I’m about to go with this? Of course you do! I’m talking the August 12th match against D.C. United.

The teams were 2-2 in stoppage time. Johnson burst down the field trying to beat Wayne Rooney to the ball. Instead of trying a left-foot power shot from midfield toward an empty net, the Canadian tried to pass the ball to Stefano Pinho, but the attempt was blocked by Rooney, who went on to send in the game-winning assist in the 96th minute, helping Luciano Acosta complete his hat trick. Because, City. This was probably the nail in the coffin for Johnson haters. People all assuming that he could have had the game-winning goal if he’d just (as I remember reading somewhere on Twitter), “Tapped it in.”

I wonder how it would have played out had Johnson not run his heart out with the Lions down a man for much of the match, against anybody other than Wayne Rooney coming at you full force out for blood, and a stoppage time win? Trigger warning:

This season, we’re seeing the turnaround — glimpses of the Johnson of years past. He was called up to the Canadian National Team for the Gold Cup run as one of 12 MLS players to make the roster. Additionally, so far this season, TML has named him Man of the Match three (almost four) times. He almost earned the Man of the Match title for his performance in the March 2 season opener at home against NYCFC. The Bearded Guy said it then, it was a solid performance that should “endear him to the detractors.”

His first Man of the Match title came from me for his performance in the May 4 loss to Toronto — another match that saw the midfielder running his guts out the full 90+. He saw MotM again for the road win against the Montreal Impact. He hustled in this match from front to back and all over again, scoring from a header that more than solidified the win for the Lions.

Lastly, his most recent MotM title came from the July 3 match at home against the Philadelphia Union. As TML’s Andrew Sharp pointed out, especially for this match, when the team seemed to fall to pieces after Kljestan and Robin Jansson were removed from the match, Johnson channeled his anger and frustration and played harder than he may have ever played. He used that frustration to help his game instead of panicking and acting recklessly. He appeared to be a force, but his stats didn’t lie either. He led the team with tackles and key passes, all while maintaining a 98% passing accuracy.

Could this be the comeback for which Will Johnson has been hoping? I think so. He never slows his pace. What you get in the first minute is what you’ll see from him in 90+ minutes of play. He’s in excellent form and he’s taking chances. Here’s hoping we see more MotM quality out of him the remainder of the season.