PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers return to MLS action Sunday against the Columbus Crew (5 pm ET, MLSsoccer.com free stream of the week), after a two-week midseason break, they’ll be set to take the field without captain Will Johnson for the first time this season.
Johnson, who will also play Sunday - as the captain for the Canadian National Team in their Gold Cup tournament opener against Martinique - has started all 17 of Portland’s games this season.
Portland will also be without winger Rodney Wallace (Costa Rica) and forward Frederic Piquionne (Martinique), who are also with their respective national teams for Gold Cup duty, but the spotlight will fall directly on the middle of the park as reserve midfielder Ben Zemanski tries to fill Johnson’s shoes as the team’s main facilitator. Not to mention keeping the Timbers franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak alive.
“It’s why we added him,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said of Zemanski. “I think he’s one of the more underrated midfielders in the league. If we didn’t have Will Johnson and Diego Chara, two of the better box-to-box mids in the league, he’d be starting. … He’d probably be starting on a lot of teams.”
Zemanski got a tune up at Johnson’s position Wednesday night when he started and played the first half in Portland’s friendly against Mexican first-division side Monarcas Morelia, a 1-0 Timbers win.
“We got him minutes to keep him sharp,” Porter said. “He’s the next guy in line. I thought he did well, very well.”
Zemanski isn’t a stranger to playing a big role, however.
The 25-year-old, four-year MLS veteran started 18 games for Chivas USA last season before a preseason deal reunited him with Porter, his college coach at the University of Akron. He’s started two games for the Timbers at right back this season and one at midfielder, along with Chara and Johnson, on June 8 against the Chicago Fire.
In that game, he scored his first goal of the season on a 20-yard blast.
And when he takes the field in Columbus, he’ll be doing so on familiar turf. Zemanski is an Akron native and starred at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio before playing collegiately under Porter.
“Whenever you have guys out of the lineup on international duties or injuries or anything like that you need other guys to step up and help the team continue to get points and continue this good run of games,” Zemanski said after the Chicago game. “I’m looking forward to stepping up for the team and doing my part to help out.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.