Timbers captain uses experience, past victories to fire up team

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: NICK FOCHTMAN - Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson, formerly with Real Salt Lake, will lead the Timbers against RSL on Sunday as Portland tries to rally and earn a spot in the Dec. 7 MLS championship game.One of the ways Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter judges himself as a leader is his ability to “sniff character.”

“Being a leader means you’re emotionally intelligent and you know how to read people,” Porter says.

When the Timbers acquired mid- fielder Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake during the offseason, Porter’s olfactory system went into hyperdrive.

“He’s a guy with character,” Porter says. “He’s a winner. He’s a fighter. And he’s a guy who has experience. That’s the first thing I thought bringing him in. This is a guy who’s been in a winning locker room. He’s performed. He’s been in situations that we haven’t been in. We can learn from that.”

Porter trusted Johnson enough to name him the side’s captain, replacing Jack Jewsbury, who served as captain under former coach John Spencer. Johnson has lived up to all of Porter’s expectations.

And, if anyone can fire up the Timbers to beat RSL on Sunday — the Timbers trail 4-2 in the two-game, aggregate goal MLS Western Conference final — it’s Johnson.

“I’ve always felt that with the best captains, it’s like having a coach on the field,” Porter says. “That’s what he is.”

Porter is counting on Johnson to help lead and find a way in the 6 p.m. game at Jeld-Wen Field.

“A leader does it with their play, they do it with their words, they do it with their actions, they do it with confidence, they do it sometimes without saying a word,” Porter says.

Johnson leads the Timbers in getting under opponents’ skin. He also has been a key to their offensive engine, triggering attacks and producing nine goals (tied for second on the club) and five assists (tied for third).

“It’s hard to quantify (everything he does),” Porter says, of the 5-10 native of Toronto, who at 26 is in his seventh MLS season. “It’s hard to see it always. It’s what he does inside the lines in training, it’s what he does inside the lines in games.”

Johnson gives credit to the players around him.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys in that locker room who lead in their own way and do things,” Johnson says. “I wear the armband on game days, and I take that responsibility on my shoulders. I love doing everything I can to help lead this group. But, if Caleb comes to me and says, ‘Somebody else is better to do that,’ then I’ll lead in my own way in the locker room. I’m nothing without the rest of the guys.”

Johnson was the only Timber selected to play in the MLS All-Star game. The year before, he had three goals and three assists with RSL.

“It was coming at some point,” he says, of his 2013 success. “I’m going into the prime of my career. It was also stepping out of the shadow of some superstars that they have in Salt Lake, namely Kyle Beckerman. It was a culmination of things coming together. The individuals will always get singled out on a winning team.”

Johnson also has a unique ability to play off fellow midfielder Diego Chara. When they are in a match together, the two play as if of one mind. A huge part of the reason that the Timbers went into a minor skid during the summer was that Johnson (shoulder) and Chara (toe) were rarely in the lineup at the same time.

“The work Diego Chara puts in doesn’t show up on the stat sheet every game, but without him, we don’t win,” Johnson says. “I might have a few more goals (without him), but when the two of us are in there together, it makes me a better player and it makes him a better player.”

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