How Johnson ‘pushed himself’ back into CanMNT fold

EDMONTON — Most Canadian soccer supporters could be forgiven for writing off Will Johnson’s prospects of ever getting back into the national side.

He’s on the wrong side of 30 (32, to be exact), and he’d never featured for the national side since John Herdman took over as coach. In fact, his last appearance for the national team came back in June of 2017. Since then, there’s been a youth revolution in Canadian soccer, with players like Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies and Liam Millar stepping into the limelight.

Surely, there would be no room at the inn for Johnson — a player who, in his 20s, was pretty well an automatic starter for Canada. He amassed 43 caps.

But, on Tuesday, there was Johnson’s name on Herdman’s roster.

“Sometimes a player hits form, and he wasn’t in your plans,” said Herdman. The coach added that, thanks to a strong preseason with Orlando City, and a promising start to the MLS campaign, Johnson has “pushed himself back into the national-team fold.”

When Herdman was selecting players for his first Canadian men’s team camp back in early 2018, he had a one-hour chat with Johnson. They talked about where the midfielder was in his career. Johnson still wanted to play for Canada. They discussed that if the call was made, Johnson would answer it. But, at that moment, Herdman wanted to focus on looking at younger players.

“I was looking for fresh ideas and energy,” said Herdman.

Herdman kept a regular dialogue with Johnson.

And this year, in Orlando, Herdman detected a change. Johnson was getting forward more, becoming more of an attacking threat. And that’s what Herdman wanted to see; when Johnson was coming forward more, the player wasn’t just impressing Orlando fans; he was forcing his way back onto the national side.

“He knows where he’s at in his career,” said Herdman. “He wanted to get back to that red shirt.”

Herdman said he loves Johnson’s grittiness and no-nonsense attitude.

And that’s what Johnson brings. His devotion to fitness is, well, kind of legendary.

In fact, this reporter remembers going to the opening of Real Salt Lake’s training camp, when Johnson starred there, and watching him annihilate the dreaded beep test — at altitude. While other teammates were sucking wind, Johnson was still doing his sprints.

The fact that he broke his leg as he scored a Voyageurs Cup-winning goal for Toronto FC is a moment that will always be celebrated by Reds fans.

“He’s a no-nonsense sort of guy. He tells you exactly how it is,” said Herdman.

But Johnson’s comeback trail is far from complete. Herdman said again Tuesday that he believes in putting his best players on the field. That means, he’s not going to be charitable to give a veteran a start. Johnson will need to earn the chance to play.

What will be interesting to see is if Johnson and  Samuel Piette will be battling for a holding mid spot, or if Herdman challenges Johnson to play more of an attacking role, based on recent form.

And Herdman emphasized that this is a big test for Johnson going forward.

“In planning for the Gold Cup, I wanted to have a look at Will in that environment,” Herdman said.