SANDY — For 4 1/2 seasons, Will Johnson was at the core of everything Real Salt Lake did. Whether it was scoring big goals or doing the little things defensively, Johnson was as instrumental as Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales and Nat Borchers in leading the club to five straight playoff appearances and a title in 2009.
On Wednesday he makes his much-anticipated return to Rio Tinto Stadium in enemy colors. The U.S. Open Cup semifinal between Portland and RSL will be a bittersweet moment for both parties.
Johnson didn’t want to leave Real Salt Lake after the 2012 season, but salary-cap constraints made keeping him impossible.
“We went through a lot of battles here. I played over 100 games with this group of guys. You don’t do that without having a strong bond. I have very strong ties to a lot of the guys in that locker room,” said Johnson.
In Portland he’s found a new home, and the Timbers are relevant as a result.
RSL coach Jason Kreis isn’t one bit surprised by the name Johnson’s carved for himself in the Northwest.
“Let’s be honest: He was one of my favorites. From the very first day we had him in training I saw reflections of myself in Will Johnson and what he puts forth every single day and how competitive a character he is,” said Kreis. “He’s difficult to lose and he’ll be difficult to face (Wednesday).”
For 90 minutes Wednesday night, the bond between the entire Real Salt Lake organization and Johnson will take a back seat — there’s a trophy at stake.
The U.S. Open Cup is often disregarded by many of the teams in MLS, but RSL and Portland have both put their best foot forward during the first three rounds of the 2013 competition. On Wednesday they meet in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m., with the winner guaranteed to host the D.C. United-Chicago winner in the U.S. Open Cup final Oct. 1.
“(A win) puts us in a final we’re going to host at home and an opportunity to win a spot back in the Champions League, so this is a humongous game,” said RSL defender Tony Beltran.
Wednesday will be the first of four meetings between Real Salt Lake and Portland over the last three months of the season, and plenty will be riding on every match. RSL currently sits in first place in the Western Conference with 38 points, but Portland is tied with Colorado right behind with 35 points.
“I’ve been watching them since the beginning of the year and keeping a close eye on them. I think it’s a very good team, a team I actually enjoy watching, so I’ve been thinking for a while this could be a nice game,” said Kreis.
Both teams are winless in their past three MLS matches, and Kreis expects both to be a little anxious as a result.
After Tuesday’s training session at Rio Tinto, Kreis said he expects Morales to be available for selection after he injured himself early in last Saturday’s match at Colorado. Whether or not he starts remains to be seen.
With so much at stake in Johnson’s homecoming, you can bet Morales will do everything he can to be ready to contribute.
For Johnson, he can’t wait to step foot on the pristine surface he called home for nearly five years.
“It’s still one of my favorite stadiums to play in in the league,” said Johnson. “It’s a homecoming for me; it’s something I’m excited to play in front of these fans.”
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