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WTR Top 20, No. 8: Will Johnson still a rare breed in MLS

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The new Orlando City midfielder is now part of an exclusive club of Canadians with American MLS teams.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Montreal Impact Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A few things have transpired concerning Will Johnson since I pencilled him in for the No. 8 spot on our Top 20 list.

He’s left Toronto FC as a free agent, of course, and joined Orlando City. He’s taken a swipe at a few people on the way out and then partially backtracked and explained himself in more detail. We’ve written a fair bit about him, including on where his departure leaves the Reds’ midfield and whether or not what he brought to the table in 2016 can be replaced without a new signing.

We also watched his best moment in the jersey a few more times.

On the back of all of that, I thought that instead of covering the same ground with a review of Johnson’s season we could widen the lens and get a status update on Canadians as a whole in MLS last year.

Back in May, Mitchell took a look at how those hailing from north of the border were doing compared to previous years in terms of minutes, goals and assists per matchday. Now the season is over, we can see how those figures* held up over the course of the full campaign.

Minutes per matchday

Purely in terms of Canadian boots on the field, there was not only an improvement on last year but also from the beginning of the season to the end. When Mitchell crunched the numbers two months into the season, Canadians were averaging 593 minutes per matchday. That figure rose to 616 minutes thanks in large part to the arrival of senior internationals Tosaint Ricketts, Marcel de Jong and David Edgar in the summer.

It’s progress, but the equivalent of two extra players playing 90 minutes per week from the 2015 season is not a dramatic transformation. The outlook for the future is also cloudier given Fraser Aird and Kyle Bekker (fifth and seventh in minutes played) will not be in the league this year, barring transfers, and Patrice Bernier (sixth) is not getting any younger. The aforementioned new arrivals should make up for that shortfall but it will be up to the likes of Jay Chapman, Marco Bustos and Russell Teibert to deliver another increase.

Goals per matchday

The fast start in the first two months of the season (1.26 goals per matchday) was not maintained and fell to just below the one-goal mark (0.97). That’s still a small increase on the previous year and the future prospects here look better, with Cyle Larin and Tesho Akindele capable of at least matching their 2016 tallies and Jonathan Osorio, Tosaint Ricketts and Jordan Hamilton all realistically in with a chance of building on theirs. Johnson was the only other player to net two.

Assists per matchday

This is the problem area. After flatlining at 0.41 assists per matchday over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, this year saw a very minor rise to 0.47. Again, there is hope for an increase next season; Akindele and Larin, along with Johnson, led the way and should only improve with another year’s experience under their belt and Osorio and Chapman have the ability to add to their totals.

Hamilton and Bernier were the only others to register in this column so there is not much chance of a drop off. Finding room for creative players at the MLS level continues be a challenge, however, as evidenced by Bustos’ 63 minutes for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016.

The problem in increasing these numbers, to circle back to Johnson, continues to be the lack of Canadian players on American MLS clubs as a result of the restrictive international player rules. Those have been loosened for the next generation, but it will be years before we really see the effects. For now, Johnson replaces Karl Ouimette (who has dropped down to the USL) as just the third Canadian, after Larin and Akindele, to be on an American MLS roster and have played a game in the league last year.

If you’re not one of the most talented young players in the league or a dual U.S. citizen, the only jobs at the top level remain in Canada. TFC are making the most concerted effort to bring through domestic players; Mo Babouli, for example, probably would not have got a 16-game look with the Whitecaps or the Montreal Impact. The Whitecaps have talent but are more reluctant to throw it in the deep end and in Montreal, the pipeline is running a little dry.

The bright side is the return of a few senior internationals to MLS, albeit with Canadian clubs only. That, you would expect, will become more of a feature in the coming years with salary flexibility increasing and a greater number of the younger members of the national squad coming through MLS academies and selling them on their clubs.

Johnson, for now, stands as an example of what could have been for others if only for the opportunity: a three-time MLS All-Star with two MLS Cups and more than 200 appearances in the league across four, soon to be five, cities. It will be a while yet before we see more like him.

*Stats do not include Teal Bunbury, who is Canadian but represents the United States, or Alphonso Davies, who is yet to gain eligibility for Canada in official competition.