Johnson expressed his desire to manage the Nationals next season this afternoon, the clearest public sign yet that Johnson will likely return as the Nationals’ manager in 2012. The Nationals will still proceed with interviewing other candidates to conduct a managerial search mandated by MLB, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate. But General Manager Mike Rizzo’s fondness for and confidence in Johnson, combined with Johnson’s wish to return, virtually ensures Johnson will manage next season.

“Yeah, I’d like to come back,” Johnson said. “I think coming into 2012 there’ll be very few questions. Competition will be maybe for one or two jobs. When that happens, you have a chance to contend. That’s a realistic assessment, so that’s why I think, because of the people in that room over there, that’s why this job is attractive to me. The challenge to get to that level, I like. . . .

“I know I’m the best candidate.”

Johnson has previously demurred when asked about his intentions for next season, saying he wanted to take every day one at time and to see how the season played out. Johnson viewed his role during his tenure, during which the Nationals have gone 39-43, as preparing players for next season by matching them with their best role. On the final day of the season, he feels that he has.

“Now that I’ve seen it play out, it’s a challenge I wouldn’t mind handling,” Johnson said. Nationals players would “be the main reason I’d come back. I mean, not just the makeup but the talent. I didn’t plan on starting this job, number one, but when I start something I like to finish it. We haven’t finished anything. My goal every time I manage has always been winning the division and contending. I didn’t have that opportunity this year. I would like to have the opportunity to have that opportunity.”

Nationals player would like for him to return as well. Johnson has come to gain the trust of his players, allowing veterans to play and helping developing younger players such as Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos with closer attention. He has also stabilized roles in the bullpen.

“I hope he comes back,” closer Drew Storen said.

“The most important job for a manager is to just kind of keep everyone together and let things run smoothly,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’ve had no incidents since he’s been here. So I’d have to say he’s done a good job.”

The Nationals have gone 16-10 in September, and part of that owes to Johnson’s ability to bend the roster to his liking.

“Six months from the start of the season, and we’re where we need to be,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We weren’t where we needed to be at the start of the season. Davey has been a big part of that. These guys, the first year players, were allowed to play and learned to play the right way as the season went along. They made steps in the right direction. I think we made up a lot of ground in a short period of time.”

Johnson’s players have also become comfortable with his ability to communicate. Today, every player on the roster, one by one, trickled into Johnson’s office and chatted for five or 10 minutes. They shared their plans for the offseason, and Johnson offered end-of-the-year advice or encouragement.

“He keeps you relaxed. He wants you to feel comfortable. He doesn’t ever harp on you. He doesn’t call you in and say, ‘You need to step it up.’ He doesn’t do that type of crap. … I like playing for Davey. I think he’s a great guy. I’d definitely like to see him back.”

Rizzo has said he expects the Nationals to come to a final decision on their manager quickly this offseason and that he has a “streamlined” list of candidates. Class AAA Syracuse Manager Randy Knorr and third base coach Bo Porter are expected to interview for the position.

If Johnson does not return as the manager, he will serve as a consultant through the 2013 season,according to the contract he signed when he took over in late June. It seems Johnson will wait at least one year, though, before he joins the front office. Either way, minutes before the final game of 2011, he did not seem concerned about his future.

“I know what I’m going to be doing next month,” Johnson said. “That’s relaxing, playing golf, catching fish, playing with my dog. I might have to paint my house. I know my wife and I are going to go on vacation to St. Maarten’s. I won’t be going to D.C.”