RSL gives Johnson the green light to play for Canada in Greece

Will Johnson

Even though coach Jason Kreis has just four weeks and three days to get Real Salt Lake prepared for its first competitive game, he wouldn’t dream of asking Will Johnson to skip Canada’s Feb. 9 friendly in Greece.

Kreis and Johnson confirmed at the opening of Real Salt Lake training camp Saturday at the University of Utah that the Canadian midfielder will be part of Stephen Hart’s squad that will go to Greece.

“We don’t want to take opportunities away from our players,” Kreis said after putting the RSL players and camp hopefuls through a series of grueling fitness tests, including the dreaded beep test. “We have decided to let them go to their games.”

When Kreis means “they,” he is referring to Johnson and Haitian RSL-er Jean Alexandre, who will also play during the Feb. 9 international date.

“One of my main goals is to get in the national team, stay in the national team,” said Johnson. “I want to play a role in making the team (Canada) more successful than it has been. I’ll be going for sure.”

Will Johnson trains at the University of Utah during opening day of Real Salt Lakes training camp.

Kreis, Johnson and Canadian national-team coach Stephen Hart have an open dialogue. Kreis is huge on seeing his players develop, whether it be in an RSL shirt or in a national-team jersey, no matter if it’s the USA, Canada or Haiti. But Johnson understands that, with the short preparation window for the CCL game, Kreis’ green light means a lot. Kreis knows it will mean a lot to Johnson to play in front of a hostile crowd in Greece.

But, the debt may be repaid down the road. Johnson said if RSL has an important league or playoff game that buts up against a Canadian friendly, he’d be willing to tell Hart to take a pass on him for the sake of his club.

Johnson is devoted to the Canadian program — even though he could have easily declared for the U.S. national program. Of course, with Teal Bunbury recently declaring for the U.S. after playing at the U-20 level for Canada — and previously pledging that he wouldn’t change allegiances to America — the question of loyalty to the Canadian program is once again a hot-button issue for soccer fans in our home and native land. But, while the likes of Bunbury, Asmir Begovic, Caolan Lavery and Jacob Lensky have decided to play for other countries, Johnson said it’s time to focus on the players who are dedicated to the Canadian program rather than moan about who isn’t playing for this country.

“My tone has never changed. If guys don’t want to play for Canada, then don’t. We have more than enough players.”

Coach Jason Kreis puts RSL midfielder Javier Morales through an agility test at the University of Utah.

RSL has to go with an abbreviated traning camp because it has a Feb. 22 CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final date with the Columbus Crew. That means RSL and the Crew have to be ready a month ahead of the other 16 MLS teams. RSL will be heavily favoured to head to the semis; it is brining back almost its entire lineup from last season — and traded for money during the draft to ensure it could retain its players — while the Crew is rebuilding. Gone are striker Steven Lenhart and midfield maestro Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

At camp, Johnson and defender Tony Beltran were the last two standing in the beep test, which sees the players do a series of back-and-forth sprints between markers on the field. It’s a source of pride for Johnson to show RSL — who signed him to a new contract this off-season — that he’s ready to play.

But Kreis said that this was the best opening day of camp he’s ever seen.

“From the looks of it, guys are fitter now than they ever were on day one (of camp),” he said.

It was clear that all of the players — save for Designated Player Alvaro Saborio, who was restricted to light jogging as he recovers from knee surgery and keeper Nick Rimando and midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who have international commitments at the moment — are aware that they have to be ready a month ahead of schedule this year.

They showed up ready to go. And it’s a testament to the professionalism that exists within the RSL camp.

“It’s how things have been in the three years I have been here,” said Johnson. “The guys will be ready to play. It doesn’t matter if we need four weeks, six weeks or eight weeks. The guys play for each other.”

OLYMPIC RIVALRY?
Something being floated in RSL camp was the notion that some kind of “Olympic” rivalry will be established between Kreis’ charges and the Vancouver Whitecaps. As both have hosted the Winter Olympics, the two cities could use that to create some kind of atmosphere around their games. Still can’t see how RSL fans would allow Vancouver to trump the Colorado Rapids on their most-hated list.

FROZEN FIELDS?
Rio Tinto Stadium will host the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final in March. In January, the stadium had up to eight feet of the white stuff on the grass for a snowcross event. The snow is gone and the grass is coming in. But, the questions remain — in a wintry Rocky Mountain burg like Salt Lake City — is will the undersoil heating and preparations be adequate enough to stage a major game before the winter is over?

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.