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Portland Timbers Western Conference Finals Preview – Will Johnson’s Final Stand?

Saturday, November 21, 2015


The Portland Timbers begin their Western Conference Finals home-and-home matchup against FC Dallas this Sunday at Providence Park. This series is easily the most important Portland has played since the 2013 Conference Finals matchup against Real Salt Lake, and could serve as a springboard to the city’s first male professional sports championship since 1977.

According to Vegas, Portland is the underdog in the series, with Dallas (+225) considered exactly twice as likely to win MLS Cup as the Timbers (+450). Portland earned a birth in the finals thanks to a thoroughly impressive and workman-like performance against Vancouver Whitecaps, scoring a 2-0 victory on the road and controlling the match throughout.

Dallas is coming off a dramatic series win over the Seattle Sounders, needing penalty kicks after three goals were scored after the 85th minute, including two coming at the 90th and 91st minute respectively. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the highlights, do yourself a favor and go check them out; it was an amazing finish.

It is imperative that Portland get off on the right foot (no pun intended) in the series, as Dallas has been the best home team in MLS this season with a sterling record of 13-2-2. While the Timbers have certainly been road warriors this season and the last two months in particular, heading to Dallas needing a win or even to score multiple away goals could be too big a mountain to climb for Caleb Porter’s squad.

Unfortunately for the Timbers, they will be without two key weapons for the first leg in Portland as midfielders Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace both earned suspensions due to yellow card accumulation. The loss of Valeri in particular is a huge blow, as it will allow the Dallas defense to key on the red-hot Darlington Nagbe, who now bears the burden of primary creator for the Timbers’ offense in Valeri’s absence.

The loss of Wallace also hurts, as he has quietly developed into a very strong two-way wing player for Portland, using his speed and high work rate to help back on defense when Alvas Powell or Jorge Villafaña is caught out of position. However, the Timbers can simply slot in Dairon Asprilla, who started in Vancouver, without seeing a significant drop in performance. Asprilla gives the Timbers even more speed and another player willing to take on defenders, but is not as willing a defender as Wallace. This could be key against a Dallas team that features MLS all-star Fabian Castillo on the wing, as Castillo could cause massive problems for the Timbers if left against Powell or Villafaña without help.

Luckily for Portland, they may be regaining an all-star of their own at just the right time. Timbers fan favorite Will Johnson, who has been out since October 1st after having surgery to remove screws from his right leg, recently started both matches for his native Canada during the international break, going a full 90 minutes in the first and assisting on the lone goal.

Since switching to a single-pivot defensive midfield formation back in October, Johnson was considered the odd man out with Diego Chara playing splendidly in front of both Valeri and Nagbe. The formation switch has kick-started the Timbers offense and been a key factor in the sudden emergence of Nagbe, but has left the beloved Chara-Johnson defensive pairing on the shelf.

But Valeri’s suspension opens up a central midfield position, one that a healthy Johnson could be ideally suited for. Johnson has played the central midfield role frequently throughout his career, and his attacking instincts and ball-winning skills could be just what the Timbers need to counter Mauro Diaz while missing Valeri.

Obviously Valeri and Johnson are not the same type of player, and Valeri’s deft touch and attacking creativity will not be replicated. But Johnson is a more able and willing defender than Valeri, which could allow midfield partner Nagbe to place himself in more dangerous attack positions for when Chara or Johnson win the ball and begin the transition.

This is absolutely crucial, as this entire series may well be decided by who is better able to control the midfield and smoothly transition into the attack. If Diaz is given time and free reign in Portland’s half of the field, he has proven time and again that he can pick out the right passes (particularly to Castillo) or simply take the shot himself. On the other side, Nagbe has been white-hot since moving into a more central position, and is absolutely capable of dominating the game with his dribbling and speed. If Nagbe is able to get into key positions and draw the Dallas back line to him, expect Fanendo Adi to have a couple excellent opportunities in the match.

One under-reported subplot for the match is that Sunday may very well be Will Johnson’s final home match as a member of the Portland Timbers. ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, who is as plugged into MLS as anyone, said as much on twitter earlier this week when he replied to a proposed trade involving Johnson with “Will Johnson will NOT be in Portland next year, that’s for sure.”

Johnson joined the Timbers in 2013, and has been the team’s captain ever since. Beloved by the Timbers Army, he has served as the team’s heart and soul for three seasons and, if this truly is his final home match as a Timber, deserves the chance to lead the team once more and receive a proper “thank you” from the Timbers’ faithful.  One thing is certain – should Johnson play and score a goal on Sunday, Providence Park will go absolutely bananas.

The first 20 minutes of the match will be absolutely key – the Timbers will feed off the crowd and come out looking to put Dallas in an early hole. If Dallas is able to absorb the pressure and effectively counter, the Timbers could find themselves chasing the match. But I think the magic of Will Johnson will carry the day, and Portland will end up taking a 2-1 lead back to Dallas for the second and deciding leg.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time

Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films. 

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#12 Rollerball

Some of the non-athletic scenes in this dystopian classic show their age, but Rollerball is a strangely prescient film that anticipated both the corporatization of sport and fans’ limitless taste for violence. Bonus points for the ominous intro music.

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#11 A League of Their Own

A comedy that looks back to the antithesis of corporate sport – a women’s baseball league during World War II with many memorable lines to choose from (e.g.,”There’s no crying in baseball.”)

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#10 Remember The Titans

Yes, filmmakers took liberties with some of the facts dealing with the integration of a high school football team in Virginia. But there’s a reason football teams often screen this film on the eve of big games. It’s a damn inspirational tale.

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#9 The Natural

This film has grown on me over time. Originally, it seemed slow and schmaltzy. Now, it seems well-paced and charming. Then and now, the re-created scenes of pre-World War II ballparks arrive like perfectly preserved postcards from the past.  

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#8 The Longest Yard

Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.  

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#7 Slap Shot

The Hanson brothers. Enough said.

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#6 Rocky

Often imitated, but never replicated. The definitive underdog boxing story featuring Sylvester Stallone before he became a self-caricature in multiple sequels. Impossible to hear the theme song without being motivated to get off the couch.

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#5 Seabiscuit

A fantastic book as well as a great movie. Like “The Natural,” Seabiscuit captures its Depression-era setting for modern-day viewers taken back to an era when horse racing actually meant something in America. 

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#4 Requiem for a Heavywei

A too often-forgotten film these days but a wonderful boxing drama that shows the sport’s underside with memorable  performances by Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason and Anthony Quinn.

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#3 Hoosiers

Want to know something about small-town America in the 1950s and about Indiana basketball? This hoops movie does all of that with a healthy dose of redemption throughout. 

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#2 Bull Durham

There’s a pretty good case to be made this movie played a huge part in the rebirth and re-marketing of minor league baseball. As written by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, there are many great scenes to choose from but this one is a favorite. 

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#1 Raging Bull

A rags-to-riches-to-rags story of boxer Jake LaMotta meets the actor born to play him, Robert De Niro. Not a false moment in this black-and-white powerhouse.


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