Will Johnson Era In Portland Ends With Mixed Emotions

Dwindling playing time likely sees the Timbers’ captain elsewhere in 2016
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, December 10, 2015

The MLS title won by the Portland Timbers on Sunday was also the end of the tenure for one player, one who many Portland fans simply refer to as, “Captain”.

That Will Johnson joined Liam Ridgewell in lifting the MLS Cup in Columbus was as much the official changing of the guard as a trophy ceremony. It was Ridgewell who most often wore the captain’s armband after Johnson broke his leg in Toronto late in the 2014 season, and it was Ridgewell who led the Timbers out for the final. Johnson, on the other hand, watched from the bench, a part of the final 18 but never getting into the match.

It was the end of an era, one where Johnson became the symbol of the rise to prominence, and change in attitude, by the Timbers. When he arrived from Real Salt Lake, the club was at bottom and no one was quite sure what Caleb Porter could do, or if he could extend his success from the University of Akron to the MLS level.

He knew it, too. Johnson told Prost Amerika’s Steve Clare after the final that his time in Portland was done. Rumors have had the Canadian national team captain ending up either in Vancouver or Toronto, and Johnson believes that he can still contribute on a regular basis.

It’s a long way from his arrival before the 2013 season. One of the first major decisions Porter made was making Johnson captain, removing the title from Jack Jewsbury (who remained “club captain”), was controversial. The new coach was making a statement with the new captain, but many Timbers supporters weren’t sure about giving a newcomer to the club the armband. Many believed Jewsbury had been a solid captain in tough circumstances, a rock during the chaotic end of the John Spencer regime and the rough end of the 2012 season as Gavin Wilkinson tried to steady the ship.

But Johnson soon became the soul of the Timbers, and his give-no-quarter play in the midfield became the heart of what Porter was trying to do. He wasn’t afraid to stir the pot, get in the faces of opponents or give referees a good tongue lashing if he felt it was needed. That he once got yellow for showing a ref just how far 10 yards was on a free kick, and not caring that he got the yellow, was just one moment of the 2013 season that helped him become a beloved figure among those in the Timbers Army. His baiting of Seattle’s Ozzie Alonso into a red card during a testy Cascadia match late in the season also put him into the lore of Timbers history.

His attitude and commitment to Porter’s “possession with purpose” philosophy, combined with the stunning rise of Diego Valeri, the maturation of Diego Chara, the playmaking of Darlington Nagbe and the rock-steady goalkeeping of Donovan Ricketts, were major factors in Portland’s stunning run to the top of the Western Conference. Though the Timbers lost to RSL in the conference final, it seemed like Portland was going up and Johnson was the one who would lead them to bigger and better things.

Little did they know what a frustrating season 2014 would be. Johnson didn’t have nearly as good of a season as he had in 2013, frustrating fans with his inconsistency. It seemed like he wasn’t the defensive force that he was in 2013, and his partnership with Chara was not as solid as it had been. When Johnson broke his leg early in the match in Toronto on September 27, it was a gruesome end to a rough season.

But when Ben Zemanski took over, and played very well in the final five matches of the Timbers’ MLS season, murmurs began that maybe Zemanski had surpassed Johnson on the roster, that Zemanski was more deserving to be the starter. Whether that would’ve happened, we’ll never know, as Zemanski tore his ACL during a preseason match against Vancouver on February 22 and missed the 2015 season. In a twist of fate, it was Jewsbury who often filled in for Johnson at the beginning of this season, playing the defensive midfield role very well at times. George Fochive also played in the spot, and impressed on many occasions.

When Johnson came back, the Timbers seemed to catch fire. They won the first four matches he played in, and were a part of the Cascadia dominance of the Western Conference at the beginning of the season. Porter tried to rest him as needed to not put too much stress on the repaired leg, but things seemed to be coming together. From late June until late August, he was a regular starter. He had also made his return to the Canadian national team, helping them get into the group stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Then, he wasn’t. He didn’t play for a month until he started against the Red Bulls on September 20. He played 66 minutes, and then Porter subbed him out for Rodney Wallace. As it turns out, that likely was Johnson’s final start for the Timbers.

As it turned out, the screws that had been put into his leg after it was broken were becoming an issue, so they were removed not long after the Red Bulls match. Johnson was confident that he would be back to form quickly, and would be a part of the Timbers’ playoff push.

But he had lost his spot. Porter’s late-season adjustments in the midfield had Chara handling much more of the defensive load, and he was having great success. Johnson never got back into the match 18 until the regular season finale against Colorado, and he didn’t play.

By this time, fans and the media were wondering if Johnson was done in Portland. There had been rumors that Johnson and Porter weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on a number of issues, and that Johnson’s absence was as much a coach’s decision as it was injury-related. He was a big part of Canada’s World Cup qualifying, but couldn’t get into the match 18 anymore.

So when Johnson came into the first-leg of the Western Conference Final against FC Dallas as a late sub, it felt like he was out there to say thank you and good-bye. It felt like it was his last home match as a Timber, and the response from the home crowd as he came in felt like a thank you from them, as well. An era was coming to an end.

It was the last time he played for the Timbers. He didn’t see action in the second leg in Texas or in the MLS Cup Final. As it turned out, it was Jewsbury who was Portland’s final sub on Sunday, replacing Wallace in the 90th minute, and not Johnson. It was Valeri who lifted the Western Conference trophy as captain, and Johnson was just in the background at that key moment in Portland soccer history.

Thus, it was likely a bittersweet moment for him as he and Ridgewell got the MLS Cup from Timbers’ owner Merritt Paulson and took it to the team to celebrate. He knew he was done in Portland, and while he did get to lift the cup, he did it as effectively a past captain, with Ridgewell joining him in that moment. But the mantle had already been passed. This was Ridgewell’s team now, not Johnson’s.

So a major era comes to an end in Portland. The Timbers never turn the corner in 2013 without Johnson leading the way, being the point man in Caleb Porter’s system. Without his hustle, his leadership, his take-no-prisoners attitude, Portland doesn’t become the team it became, doesn’t win the Western Conference, and doesn’t make that first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League. While he became a bit player in the biggest moment in Timbers history, winning the MLS championship, the club and the Timbers Army will never forget what he did for the team.

He is forever a Timbers captain. 

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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