Fire officials pursuing Timbers midfielder Johnson
The time might be right for Will Johnson to finally come back to Chicago.
The midfielder still is under contract with the Portland Timbers, but he wasn't a big part of their run to the 2015 MLS Cup championship due to injury and a formation change. Johnson told Prost Amerika after MLS Cup he believes he won't be with the Timbers in 2016.
"My time here with the Portland Timbers is up," said Johnson, who served as Timbers captain. "I don't have an exact destination. … I want to stay within Major League Soccer. I don't want to leave this league. I love playing in Major League Soccer. I know how to win in Major League Soccer."
The Timbers are believed to be willing to try to accommodate Johnson with a trade to a club of his choosing, and the Chicago Fire is a leading candidate, along with Toronto FC, sources said.
Johnson, who is in the Canada National Team player pool, was born in Toronto but moved to the western suburbs (Woodridge) from England at age 10 and signed with the Fire as an 18-year-old. But he didn't last long with the club, and the split was not amicable. Sources say Johnson vowed never to play for the Fire again.
The club has changed ownership since then, however, and new general manager Nelson Rodriguez and new coach Veljko Paunovic are said to be pushing hard for Johnson to return.
The midfielder is known for his professionalism and grit. With just 13 players on the roster and new leadership in Rodriguez and Paunovic, the Fire is rebuilding. Johnson could be a great place to start.
The Fire has plenty of allocation money it might use in a trade. Real Salt Lake traded Johnson, who turns 29 next month, to Portland in December 2012 for allocation money.
Going to Portland:
The most recent change at Toyota Park has Chicago Fire Academy director Larry Sunderland leaving for the same job with the Timbers.
Under Sunderland the academy has grown to be one of the most respected in Major League Soccer, in part because of Sunderland's detailed plan for player development, technically and tactically. His vision always was to prepare players to play with the Fire first team, not to win at the academy level.
The academy has produced current first-team players Harry Shipp (Lake Forest), Patrick Doody (Naperville) and Collin Fernandez (Downers Grove), plus Seattle Sounders backup goalkeeper Charlie Lyon (St. Charles).
Finding a capable replacement for Sunderland is vital to the club's long-term success as MLS continues to emphasize signing homegrown players.
Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic will have to decide soon if they want to sign academy products whose collegiate eligibility ended this fall or let them enter the Jan. 14 MLS SuperDraft.
Two Big Ten products, Wisconsin's Drew Conner (Cary) and Northwestern's Joey Calistri (Deerfield), fit that description. The club also could sign players who still have collegiate eligibility, and several are believed to have MLS futures.
The second stage of the league's re-entry draft is Thursday, and the Fire could select a veteran or two to help fill out the roster. The Fire needs central defenders, and injury-prone Aurora native Chris Schuler is among those in the draft.
Preseason camps can open Jan. 22.
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