TORONTO -- One year ago, Will Johnson was reduced to bit-part status as the Portland Timbers marched to an MLS Cup title. This year, he's a key component for Toronto FC as it takes on the Seattle Sounders on Saturday with another MLS Cup at stake. And he couldn't be happier.
Johnson spent much of 2015 trying to recover from a broken right leg he sustained in 2014, and never could quite become a mainstay in Caleb Porter's lineup. He was limited to 12 regular season contests, and played just a solitary minute in the playoffs. This year he's seen the field more often, making 28 league and playoff appearances.
"It's huge, it means everything to me," he told ESPN FC in exclusive interview. "Last year I was along for the ride and not much more based on what I had put into the club before I got hurt versus what we were doing in the moment. I always knew that this year was going to be big for me. I needed to move past the injury and step up and come to a team where I could contribute and help out. This place checked all the boxes and obviously to be the only player from last year's final to partake in it this year is special to me. That was a goal of mine, to get there and to get back here [to an MLS Cup final]. To be able to do it in my first year after leaving Portland is very special for me."
It was just recently that Johnson found himself back in the starting lineup again. When Toronto was hit for three goals in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Montreal Impact, manager Greg Vanney turned to Johnson to add some defensive bite in TFC's five-man midfield. In the second leg Johnson was on from the start, and figures to reprise that role on Saturday.
"Obviously I'm a leader, I can come in and cover Michael [Bradley] defensively," he said. "I can also push up higher and help the forwards defend if they need it. If a team attacks with their full-backs I can slide out to one of the sides and help provide cover for those guys.
"We like the 3-5-2 because it provides us flexibility against any formation that we're going to play against and gives us an opportunity to showcase the talents of our best players from within that system. Obviously my role or Armando [Cooper] or [Jonathan] Osorio, the guys who play that center midfield role are complementary supporting players to the best players in the league in [Sebastian] Giovinco, [Jozy] Altidore and Michael Bradley. So our role is to support them and do our part, but understand that the flexibility from that formation is so that our superstars show the qualities that they're gifted with and work so hard to sharpen for games like Saturday."
Regardless of how Saturday's game plays out, the end of the season will once again be a bittersweet moment for Johnson. Last year, he knew he was on his way out of Portland, and was subsequently traded to Toronto. This time he'll be a free agent, and it seems likely that he'll test the open market, though he insists he hasn't given his contract status much thought.
"Saturday night at 11 p.m., I've got to try to figure this out all over again," he said with an easy laugh. "It's crazy. I haven't thought at all about it, but I'm free and we'll see what happens. Literally, I have zero inclination as to what I'm going to do. If it makes sense to stay here, or it makes sense to go, literally I haven't thought about it for more than two seconds. I haven't allowed myself to fantasize about it, and last year's experience actually helped me a lot. Even when I was in Portland, I was like, 'Where am I going? Where am I going?' This year, it's like, 'Whatever, it will work itself out.' Somebody will call and it will be the right fit and we'll go from there."