If there’s one thing we learnt about Will Johnson this season, it’s that he wears his heart on his sleeve.
That manifests itself on the field in moments like his Voyageurs Cup-winning goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps, which sealed Toronto FC’s only silverware of 2016.
It also means he is unafraid to speak his mind and call things as he sees them, no matter who he might piss off - which is exactly what he has done now he has left the club for Orlando City.
Johnson called out Greg Vanney in an interview with Laura Armstrong of the Star, revealing that his departure from Toronto was not quite as amicable as it seemed from the outside.
Here’s what he had to say:
“I was very honest with [the front office],” Johnson said. “I told them that I felt disrespected in terms of getting an injury, sacrificing myself for the group, and then I felt like I never received a fair chance when I got back.”
“Clint (Irwin) got hurt, they didn’t go out and get another goalkeeper. Michael (Bradley) got hurt, they didn’t go get another centre mid. Seba (Giovinco) got hurt, they didn’t go get another striker,” he said.
“For whatever reason, (TFC coach) Greg (Vanney) didn’t give me the same fair shake he gave everybody else who got hurt. And especially the way I got hurt, making the sacrifice for the club, made it an easy decision for me to walk away.”
It’s absolutely true that Johnson was incredibly unlucky in terms of the way the chips fell during the second half of the season. No one blamed him for jumping at the opportunity in Orlando once it had become clear that his position in the TFC team was not as secure as it had been, and I doubt the club feel let down in that regard either.
Additionally, the way he put his body on the line in that Whitecaps game was nothing short of heroic and he will be remembered fondly for it.
The suggestion he was treated unfairly, however, does not really stack up. It’s surprising, in fact, for someone with his understanding of football and experience at the top level, and makes him sound a little childish.
Especially when he adds something like this:
“No coach in the world ever guarantees any player in the world playing time,” he said. “In terms of that kind of stuff, I think Toronto actually does more than other teams with Sebastian, Jozy and Michael not coming off the field.”
Johnson’s minutes dwindled for two reasons, and neither of them had anything to do with favouritism for certain players.
Firstly, Armando Cooper was signed. Whether Johnson is better than him or not is a matter of opinion, but Cooper - by pretty much every metric - is a more impactful player in the opposition half and Toronto were, and still are, seeking more playmaking and creativity.
Secondly, there were only three midfield positions up for grabs rather than four once the diamond was ditched. Johnson was the odd man out - again, correctly in my view - on the basis that Bradley-Cooper-Osorio provided a better balance between defence and attack. When Toronto needed to be more defensive, such as in the conference final with Patrice Bernier causing damage, Johnson played.
It’s also not true that other players didn’t face the same challenge for their positions. When Giovinco was hurt, Toronto signed Tosaint Ricketts. Irwin and Bradley were replaced by Alex Bono and Benoit Cheyrou. Those three players won their spots back because that seemed like the best decision for the team at the time - just as leaving Cooper in over Johnson did, too.
To be fair to Johnson, he says he would have been less unhappy if the “right conversation” about how his role had changed had taken place. It’s hard to say from the outside looking in, but maybe there was some man management lacking in that respect.
In terms of the actual decision to drop him, though, there is really no evidence that Vanney did anything other than what he thought was right by his club. You would hope that a player as selfless and dedicated as Johnson has shown himself to be would respect that.