Yesterday was a full reminder as to why Will Johnson is considered one of the best midfielders in Major League Soccer. Toronto's offseason acquisition wore his heart on his sleeve for ninety minutes to help secure a big 1-0 victory against D.C. United.
After Toronto FC scored a club record 57 seconds into the match, it was always going to be a long defensive grind that would see them secure a crucial three points. But this is why Johnson was brought in, to give the team a stronger defensive presence in the midfield beside Michael Bradley.
He played that role to perfection. According to Who Scored, Johnson had seven tackles, three more than any other player on the field. He had five clearances, second only to Drew Moor. He even got in on the action offensively but appeared to fatigued to make something of his late chance to get Toronto a two-goal cushion. He also had very good pass accuracy, with 79.3 per cent.
Johnson was the centre of what was perhaps the defining moment of the game for Toronto FC. In the second half, Michael Bradley made a brutal giveaway that led to a D.C. United counterattack. It was snuffed out, however, when Will Johnson came all the way back and dispossessed the attacking player.
This was the type of defensive coverage that Toronto rarely had last season, and why so far this year they have allowed less than a goal per game. A new look backline has been incredibly important, but a lot has to be said for the defensive coverage that the midfield has provided this year.
While Johnson led the way, Toronto's entire midfield seemed to thrive under Greg Vanney's new 4-2-2-2 system. This was especially true of Marky Delgado, who had an outstanding game out wide.
The young Toronto midfielder has been bemoaned this season at times for his lack of offensive impact, and last week he was caught out of position on a goal scored by the New England Revolution. But the importance of what he can bring defensively should not be overlooked, especially on the road.
Offensively, Delgado was crucial in Toronto FC's loan goal. He was in the right place and put in the effort needed to redirect Jozy Altidore's cross to Sebastian Giovinco. He now has a goal and an assist on the season, making him one of Toronto's best offensive players statistically.
Neither Michael Bradley nor Jonathan Osorio had performances to write home about, but each played their role well. Both are showing signs of adjusting to their new positions.
The more Johnson plays like he did last night, the more Bradley will be free to move forward and being an attacking outlet for the side. He has spent most of the season playing almost as a third centre-back, with Johnson moving further up the field. However, it is Bradley who has the better offensive abilities, especially with his passing so having them swap roles only makes sense.
Osorio has not looked the same as las season when he was a key attacking piece for Toronto FC. However, he is adjusting to a new role in a Toronto team that is far less attacking. Not to mention the fact that he is recovering from a knee injury. If this run of form continues it is concerning, but there are signs of progress. Osorio was key in Toronto FC's goal, intercepting a DC clearing attempt before playing the ball into the path of Altidore.
Toronto's midfield had been one of their weakest attributes so far this season. More often than not they have been dominated in possession, failed to string passes together and looking lost in transition. But yesterday's game was a promising sign that things are coming together.
Just in time, too. Toronto FC will need a strong effort from their midfield if they want to finally turn BMO Field into a fortress when they open their home schedule on May 7.