RSL's Johnson symbol of big future for Canada

Toronto-born MF's choice to don red gives hope to starved program

TORONTO – The greater Toronto area will be well represented when Canada faces Peru in an international friendly on Saturday at BMO Field. No fewer than half of the 20-man squad originates from the region with a population of 5.5 million.

Seeing Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson among them is assuring, especially for glory-starved Canadian soccer fans.

Johnson’s recent strong play for Canada and RSL provides optimism for the future, while his desire to play for Canada is refreshing in light of past player defections.

In recent years, the Canadian Soccer Association has watched some players opt to play for other countries. Owen Hargreaves of Manchester United and Mallorca’s Jonathan de Guzman, brother of national-team midfielder Julian, are the most high-profile choosing to play for England and Netherlands, respectively.

While the impact of their losses is debatable, their exodus is still felt by a country that hasn’t qualified for the World Cup in 24 years.

Johnson is a contrast, a player who stayed, yet could have left. Though born in Toronto, he spent much of his youth growing up in Woodbridge, Ill. When the came time to decide between Canada and the US, Canadian soccer fans were nervous.

But for Johnson, it was a no-brainer.

“I’m a big fan of playing for the country you’re born in,” said Johnson, 23. “This is where you’re born, this is where I started my life, so it’s always fun to come back here with the national team, especially.”

Johnson steadily rose up the youth ranks playing four years for the U-20 National Team under former senior national-team coach Dale Mitchell. In 2008, he burst onto the scene during the CONCACAF men’s Olympic qualifying tournament, scoring three goals in three games to lead Canada to the semifinals.

Under Canada coach Stephen Hart, Johnson has become a mainstay playing five matches in 2009.

“Will is a fantastic young player in his attitude in the way he approaches everything,” said Hart. “He’s been tremendous for me, he’s having a good season at Real Salt Lake and he’s one of those players that, in the past, when I’ve asked him to do something that he may not be 100 per ent comfortable with, he just rolls up his sleeves and gets on with it. So he’s been tremendous or us.”

His rise has coincided with his development as a pro with RSL, where he won the 2009 MLS Cup.

“The past few years have been very productive, played a lot of games I’ve grown as a player and I feel like I’m just coming into the peak of my career,” said Johnson, who has a year left on his contract. “I feel like I’m starting to understand what it takes to play at the highest level and not only to play, but in figuring out what it takes to win and what it takes to help my teams win.”

“Now I’m trying to really focus about getting the national team back on track and we need to start winning some games with the national team and hope it starts this weekend.”

Johnson’s tough no-nonsense demeanor has incited some to talk about him as a future Canada captain, but he shrugs off those notions.

“I think it’s jumping the gun a little bit," he said. "I love playing for Canada – I’m very committed to the program, I always have been. I think we’re starting to turn things around. ... I’m just excited to be a part of the group right now and do whatever I can. The most important thing is to win some games and build towards the Gold Cup next summer.”

Johnson likes playing in Salt Lake City and being part of MLS, but is open to playing in Europe again. He hasn’t received a good enough offer to commit to RSL, so is keeping his options open. Wherever he goes, he hopes to return to his attacking roots.

“I see myself in the future going back to being more of an attacking player," he said, "but right now at Salt Lake, I’m kind of just a two-way guy and I’d like to get forward and be more attacking-minded. But at the same time I’ll do whatever I have to do to help my team win.”

That approach bodes well for Canada, who will need an in-form Johnson to qualify for Brazil in 2014.