PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Timbers head coach John Spencer has been quick this season to dismiss the team’s four friendly matches as nothing more than a chance for bench players to work up a sweat with a crowd watching.
But despite another bitterly disappointing result at JELD-WEN Field in a 2-2 tie Saturday against Toronto FC, Spencer may have found just the spark he was looking for from those exhibition matches.
Sal Zizzo and Eddie Johnson have been waiting in the wings and seemed to have caught Spencer’s eye — particularly in the team’s last two friendly matches against Independiente and West Bromwich Albion — and they turned it into success Saturday against Toronto.
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“I felt that we carried our form from midweek,” said a dejected Spencer, attempting to find positives as the Timbers are now winless in nine of their last 10 matches. “We passed the ball so well, kept possession.”
Johnson (pictured above, far right), a forward making his second start in his first season in MLS, scored his first regular-season goal in the 22nd minute Saturday to put Portland ahead 1-0. Zizzo started the attack with an advancing pass to midfielder Diego Chara.
Johnson had his first goal with the Timbers in a July 20 exhibition match against West Bromwich Albion. And he tallied his first assist Tuesday, feeding a Zizzo goal, against Independiente.
The speedy Zizzo (above, middle) was making just his third start in a Timbers jersey. His goal Tuesday was his first as a member of the Timbers.
“I think I can do that job, obviously John thinks that and he gave me the start tonight,” Johnson said. “I think obviously it’s been a chance for me to get some minutes in the exhibition games. So it’s good for players like me and Sal to show the manager what we can do.”
Zizzo slotted in at the midfield position, allowing the young and talented Darlington Nagbe to move up to forward. The duo overwhelmed Toronto at times with their speed.
“I feel like I click with Darlington really well,” Zizzo said. “And the style he likes to play is the style I like to play.”
The insertion of Johnson and Zizzo into the starting lineup Saturday was part of a broader shakeup of the Timbers formation.
It started in the backfield with the Timbers new acquisitions from Houston. Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala, who joined the team last week, each started on the back line for the first time. Palmer started July 23 in the Timbers 1-0 road loss against Columbus.
David Horst also got the start on defense, his fourth of the season. Defenders Jeremy Hall and Mamadou “Futty” Danso, both regular starters, and James Marcelin, who started the last four matches, were sent to the bench.
“We ran them ragged,” Spencer said. “But the game lasts for 90 minutes.”