PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Less than 12 hours after a hard-fought Cascadia Cup match against rival Vancouver, Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson was slogging a wheelbarrow full of bark chips through a public park.
Johnson, who has led the Timbers’ resurgence this season, also helped kick off the team’s annual Stand Together Week of community service on Sunday.
Portland’s All-Star midfielder has a career-high six goals and three assists this season, and he’s become a fan favorite in soccer-crazy Portland. But he’s not above doing some manual labor for a good cause — in this case, restoring a series of community trails.
“I really like playing for this team. The fans are amazing, the organization is big-time,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun here, and I’m playing free.”
The Timbers acquired Johnson, 26, in the offseason from Real Salt Lake, where he played for five seasons and was also an All-Star in 2009. A native of Montreal, Johnson also plays for the Canadian national team.
Johnson fit in immediately with first-year Portland coach Celeb Porter’s new possession-oriented system, so much so that he was chosen team captain.
“He’s a great player, but a tremendous leader,” Porter said earlier this season. “He’s done a lot to transform this club into the club that we are now. We’re on the right track, and we’re hoping at the end of the year we’re in the mix to make a run at this thing.”
And it’s not just Johnson who has thrived under Porter. The Timbers, who finished last season 8-16-10 and ranked second-to-last in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, are 8-3-11 so far this season and sit in a tie for second place in the conference. The team’s turnaround has been highlighted by a 15-match midseason unbeaten streak.
“I credit it to a bunch of guys all buying into the same philosophy. Humble, hard-working, disciplined, respectful but aggressive. There are all qualities we have as a team,” he said. “But more than anything, we are a team. We fight for each other — win together, lose together.”
Johnson has also endeared himself to Portland. At a recent match a fan held up a sign that said “Where there’s a WILL there’s a win.”
Earlier this season, he traded jerseys with 8-year-old Atticus Lane-Dupre, a cancer patient whose youth soccer team scrimmaged against the Timbers. “It’s the first and only time in my career I’ll ask for somebody’s jersey,” Johnson said as he proudly donned the too-small No. 1 Lane-Dupre shirt.
In an April match against the San Jose Earthquakes, forward Alan Gordon directed a slur at Johnson — who in turn responded with the game-winning goal. Gordon apologized in a statement released by the team but was later suspended for three games.
Johnson was diplomatic about the incident, preferring to let his goal do the talking.
On Sunday he posed for photos with fans who chipped in to clear trails and pick up trash at a Hillsboro, Ore., park. Fellow Timbers players Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara and Diego Valeri — along with team mascot Timber Joey — also helped out.
The Timbers partner with Hands On Greater Portland annually to help out more 20 organizations across the region, with the focus mostly on youth and the environment. Last year some 900 people donated more than 1,400 hours of volunteer service.
“It’s a great platform for people to get involved in a substantive way,” Timbers Chief Executive Officer Mike Golub said.
Johnson helped spread bark chips on a network of trails at Dairy Creek Park with some 50 volunteers, many of them kids.
“I’m living my dream player soccer for the Portland Timbers, and people are coming up and thanking me for my hard work and effort, so that means a lot,” Johnson said. “They’re smart, knowledgeable soccer fans, and that’s humbling and makes me strive for greater things.”