Unlike notorious instigators in other sports, Johnson is also one of the best players in MLS this season. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
I laughed out loud this week when I saw the new SI magazine Pop Culture Grid, in which Seattle’s Brad Evans was asked who he’d like to get in the Octagon with and had one answer:
Johnson, the fiery midfielder and Portland Timbers captain, will face Evans and archrival Seattle in the first leg of the MLS quarterfinals on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN). And while Johnson, 26, has had a terrific season (9 goals and 5 assists) that will earn him votes for league MVP, the Canadian international has also earned a rep as perhaps the hardest-nosed competitor in MLS.
Simply put, Johnson has an uncanny ability to frustrate opponents into doing things that aren’t in their interest. In Portland’s last game against Seattle, Sounder Osvaldo Alonso lost his mind for a moment, threw an arm in Johnson’s face and got sent off. And in two of the three cases in which an MLS player has been given three-game suspensions for issuing homophobic slurs on camera—by Seattle’s Marc Burch and San Jose’s Alan Gordon—the target was (guess who) Will Johnson.
“It is what it is,” Johnson said when I asked him about it. “First of all, I’m a competitor, and we’re all competing for the same thing. I’m a guy who will compete to the death … When you come and have a tough game and it gets hard, you’ve got a guy who’s never giving up, and that gets frustrating for other players. They don’t like that.”
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“With regard to the suspensions, the incident with Marc Burch is a play where I go down in the box after getting bumped, and I didn’t even hear him say what he said. I just walked away and never said anything. Sigi [Schmid, the Seattle coach] keeps going back to that play like it’s always me, but he said it under his breath. That happens 100 times every single year, but people just usually don’t get caught. Then the Alan Gordon thing, we’re just both going at it, and he just slipped. If [flashing three fingers in Gordon’s face, indicating the coming suspension] is my fault, that’s my fault. I’ll take my blame for that.”
“The Alonso incident is another one,” Johnson went on. “He goes in very hard on the tackle, I have a word and he hits me in the face. Then it’s my fault for people who say I’m an instigator. But that’s fine. It comes with the territory. I expect other coaches to have a go at me, because it takes away from their team and their player when they do something out of character. I’m an easy target because I’m the captain of a very good team that likes to play a physical style. I welcome that criticism, because it shows for me that people respect my competitiveness. If nobody was saying things like this, then I’d feel I’m not competing to the best of my ability.”
There’s a lot more to Johnson’s role in Portland, however. Acquired before the season from Salt Lake, he earned respect so quickly that he was named the captain during preseason. For a player who’d been successful at Salt Lake, acquiring more responsibility as a team leader was a welcome change in his new surroundings. Johnson says his role in Portland is much bigger than the one he had in Utah.
“It’s massively different,” he says. “Here I’m one of the few guys that’s had success in the playoffs, had success in the league for multiple years and know how to win in this league home and away. I have international experience, and I’m asked to use that a lot more to keep everyone motivated in training and at a high level. In Salt Lake it wasn’t like that. To be honest, I didn’t have to do much of anything from a leadership point of view. All I had to do was go about my business, be that guy in the middle, win a lot of balls, keep us solid defensively and just do my part. I was pretty much a role player there because of the veteran players that we had.”
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“It’s been a total transformation for me. I’ve loved every second of my new responsibility, and I think that’s really helped me as a player as I continue to try and reach my ultimate potential.”
Of the four matchups in the MLS quarterfinals, all of them are intriguing, but Portland-Seattle takes the league’s most passionate rivalry and attaches it to the stakes of the playoffs for the first time. You can’t ask for much more than that.
“The Western playoffs are going to be a great spectacle,” Johnson says. “There are some really even matchups across the board, which is cool, because special players are going to win games. I like our chances. We’ve lost only five out of 34 games, and we’re tough to beat. You want to come in here and beat us and knock us out? You’re going to have to more than earn it.”