PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers got their heart back.
Captain and midfielder Will Johnson returned after missing four games with a broken bone in his shoulder, partnering with his midfield companion Diego Chará for the first time in seven games. And it showed in the form of a 4-0 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field.
It was Portland’s widest margin of victory in their three-year MLS history and the most goals they’ve scored in league play this season.
“This system, your three center players…" head coach Caleb Porter told reporters. "Those players make you go, they make you tick, they allow you to control games, which is what we try to do on both sides of the ball. So I thought it was huge having them in there.”
Without Johnson and Chará together – both holding mids and key facilitators in Porter’s possession attack – the Timbers just haven’t been the same team as the one that surged to a franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak to start the season.
They were coming into the Toronto match riding their first multi-game losing streak of the season after losses to Seattle and Real Salt Lake and had won just once in their last seven league games.
And they had allowed eight goals in their last three matches.
“It would be naïve to think that’s not a bit of a factor in perhaps us not performing as well as we would have liked in the last nine games,” Porter said. “I think you saw those two guys, they’re very destructive, they’re dominant. Games sometimes are won and lost in the heart of your team.”
Johnson picked up his knock in the Timbers’ 2-1 loss Aug. 7 to Real Salt Lake in a semifinal game of the US Open Cup.
Chará has battled injuries of his own, in addition to a suspension that kept him out of Portland’s 1-0 loss two weeks ago to Seattle.
They made their reunion count, leading a dominant attack that held a 71-percent possession advantage in the first half (65 for the game). And, to top it off, Johnson scored his seventh goal of the season, a strike in the 87th minute as part of Portland’s three-goal barrage in the game’s final 10 minutes.
“It was a tough month for me,” Johnson said. “So I tried to play with a lot of emotion tonight, and it was good to just finally get back out there. It felt a lot longer than four games, I can promise you that.”
But it wasn’t just the Timbers’ offense that transformed with Johnson and Chará back at it. Their leadership and intensity on defense has also been a signature of Portland’s relentless attack.
“You can give them the toughest ball, and they will find the solution for it,” said Timbers goalkeeper Milos Kocic, who posted a clean sheet in place of starter Donovan Ricketts, who was away on international duty with Jamaica. “And that’s what we need there, we need the experience, we need them to be calm on the ball and when you give them the ball we need them to find the solution.
"That’s key for our possession, and that comes from them.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.