December 5th, 2012 by Michael Orr
Gavin Wilkinson speaks often about the mentality of the Portland Timbers needing to improve, or at the very least change. What exactly ‘mentality’ means is open to interpretation. One approach is to file the word away with the usual sports clichés. Another is to apply the word more literally. For example, the usual answer given by Timbers players (and to be fair, most professional players) when asked where they prefer to play is to give some version of ‘I’ll play wherever I’m needed or wherever coach XYZ puts me.’ While the explanation might actually be true, it also does nothing to advance the conversation.
Yesterday evening, new Timbers midfielder Will Johnson was a guest on the Talk Timbers radio program. In between explaining how he got into soccer as a child and whether or not he would sample Portland’s breweries, Johnson answered a question regarding how he would fit into what the listener expected to be a 4-3-3 formation under new manager Caleb Porter. First, the 26-year old began by providing the easy answer: “I’ll play wherever I’m needed. Wherever I can be utilized best by Coach Porter and his staff.” Then something quite remarkable happened: Johnson actually answered the question.
“I feel if you stick in the middle of the park, it utilizes all my tools very well. I can comfortably get the ball off the back four and be a link-up player to the attack. Or I can play a little bit higher and be a good attacking, possession player and see if I can’t get a little more forward than I was used to in Salt Lake. I think if you put me right in the middle of the field, in one of those three, if you play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, however you call it, I think that’s where I’ll fit in best, for sure.”
If this is what improving the mentality of the club looks like, Wilkinson and Porter need to keep finding more players like Johnson. While nothing the new midfielder said is breaking news, the fact that he not only knows how he feels he can be best used but can effectively articulate it in his very first media appearance speaks highly of the off-field qualities to which Wilkinson so frequently refers.
Johnson’s suggestion for his best position at the Timbers also challenges the existing presence of Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chará and Eric Alexander. That is not to say the Timbers will part company with any of those players, but Johnson very clearly does not expect to be very far from the starting XI when First Kick comes around in early March. Direct competition for positions has been a weak point for Portland to this point in its MLS life, so perhaps Johnson’s statements can help improve the mentality of his new teammates, as well.
Will Johnson is something new in Portland. Merritt Paulson has cited his toughness and consistency as attributes needed at the Timbers. He’ll get no disagreement here, though it already seems that there is much more to Johnson than just what he produces on the field.