For ten seconds into last Saturday's game, everything looked fine. On the eleventh second, Will Johnson broke his leg. Sliding into a 50-50 ball with his trademark gusto, the Toronto native collided with defender Mark Bloom, fracturing his right fibula and tibia. That quickly, the Captain is gone for the year.
Following successful surgery, the prognosis is a six-month absence, which would directly abut the start of the 2015 season. Who wants to bet Will is back for the pre-season tournament?
Losing your captain, on the road, in the nascent seconds of a match is enough to devastate a team into submission, right? Wrong. Once the dust settled and Ben Zemanski was slotted seamlessly into the holding midfield next to Diego Chara, the Timbers took it to Toronto like a team on a mission. Roughly six minutes after play resumed (technically the 13’), Fanendo Adi benefitted from Chara’s interception/deflection, which played like a perfect through ball, buried by the big Nigerian in similar style to his brace against Vancouver.
It didn’t stop there. Three minutes later, Diego Valeri’s shot was turned in by defender Stephen Caldwell for a stunning own goal. 2-0 Portland. Will who?
It took a while, but Toronto finally broke through in the 62’, via a header from Nick Hagglund, who had been forward for a corner. The big defender was miss-matched with Darlington Nagbe, and took advantage. A 70’ free kick to the right of the Timbers’ penalty area produced Toronto’s equalizer, again from that man Hagglund, left unmarked at the far post. The 22-year old rookie’s brace account for his only two professional goals.
The final gut punch on an already difficult day came 2 minutes from time, on a free kick 35-yards from goal. Michael Bradley, much maligned in this space for being a waste of $5+ million dollars, curled in a cross that missed everyone and found the back of the net. It’s incredibly tough to watch.
Losing Will Johnson was devastating, and yes, his leadership (among many of his attributes) were missed, but the loss is not to be blamed on his absence, or on Ben Zemanski’s work as deputy. They blew the lead and lost the match the old fashioned way: with terrible set-piece defending.
The forthcoming two-step with San Jose—first in the Bay Area on Saturday, then at Providence Park on Wednesday—is the season. Going at it without the Captain is daunting, and with the likely replacement being Ben Zemanski, the Timbers are going to have to rely heavily on goals from the front four: Wallace, Adi, Valeri, and yes, Darlington Nagbe. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time for Nags to score his first goal(s) of the season!
In a bit of ironic foreshadowing, Caleb Porter played Zemanski in an attacking wing role (the Rodney Wallace spot) in the CCL match with Alpha United; the Timbers won the game 6-0, but Zemanski looked out of place, invisible at best. Ben may play the same position – holding midfielder – as Will, but he is by no means the same type of player, especially offensively. Diego Charà, who harbors a desire to get forward and score but is often shackled by the Captain’s much more celebrated ability to do so, may very well get his chance.
All three goals conceded in Toronto were off of set pieces, and if San Jose possesses one true scoring strength, it’s their aerial attack. Shea Salinas, who has been lauded in this space before for his set piece delivery, has one of the best headers in MLS to aim for, Chris Wondolowski. You’ve probably heard of him.
Not to be outdone, Wondo’s goonish strike partner, Steven Lenhart, is back from injury, and absolutely loves playing spoiler. That may not be a statistic, but Timbers supporters know how Lenhart plays against Portland, and given the Timbers’ current vulnerability, the importance of keeping the blond half of the Bash Brothers off the score sheet is paramount.
For the time being, the Timbers are not out of it, not by any stretch. Anyone who has followed sports in their lifetime knows that once the playoffs start, all bets are off, so simply securing a postseason spot—any spot—is an achievement. But, with merely four games left, half of which in such quick succession, the Timbers cannot afford to look to next week. For weeks, we have talked about the Timbers being on the cusp, and the mountain of missed opportunities and dropped points is finally proving a tangible barrier.
Six points this week, starting with a win in San Jose, is the only option.