PORTLAND, Ore. – Ryan Johnson hasn’t exactly had an easy road the last few years of his MLS career.
Traded from San Jose to Toronto midway through the 2011 season, the former star at nearby Oregon State and Jamaican international has never really returned to the form that saw him score a career-high 11 goals in 2009. After the striker’s breakout performance in the Timbers’ preseason draw Sunday night against the Earthquakes, it appears that’s about to change.
Johnson introduced himself to the Rose City with a hat trick in the Timbers’ 3-3 draw on the opening day of the Portland Tournament in front of 14,229 fans at JELD-WEN Field.
“It’s been tough, it’s been a hard career for me in MLS,” said Johnson, who is entering his ninth season in the league. “To be playing with guys now that are just technically so good, you can just leave them by themselves and they can just skin a guy one-v-one, no problem. I just have to be in the box. It just makes everything so much easier. I’m just thankful to be here and thankful to be a part of this team.”
Johnson is just one of the handful of players new Portland head coach Caleb Porter has brought in to help mold the team into his possession-orientated attacking image. And against the Earthquakes, last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, the Timbers were clearly the aggressor and looked downright dangerous with Johnson the beneficiary of the interplay among new attacking midfielder Diego Valeri and withdrawn forwards Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan.
“We have a lot of little technical players who can create the game, but we need a guy who’s going to finish the game,” Porter said. “[Johnson is] a true No. 9 penetrating striker in our system. That dimension is crucial. Otherwise we become a team that has the ball and creates a lot underneath but we need a guy who’s going to finish the play.”
Porter said the attacking group – which also featured holding midfielders Will Johnson, another new acquisition, and Diego Chara – has come together faster than what he anticipated. And he said there’s a lot more that can be accomplished between now and the team’s season opener on March 3.
“We have some weapons,” Porter said. “I knew we had talent.”
Johnson said it’s easy to gel when you’re dealing with high-level talent. After their first week of training, he said, everyone was on the same page.
Portland Tournament: Johnson the star as Timbers tie SJ 3-3
“Hats off to Caleb for putting this team together because he knows exactly what he’s doing,” Johnson said. “He’s 100-percent sure about exactly everything that comes out of his mouth, and it’s great to see that and play for a coach that is 100-percent confident in what he’s doing.”
But three goals in the team’s first regular season-like situation?
“With the offense that we have and the way we approach attacking the ball, it’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “We’re going to score a lot of goals this year, and I expect to score a lot this year and I expect the guys around me to score a lot this year.”
And of course Johnson was wide-eyed at the prospect of participating in the Timbers tradition of presenting to the Timbers Army the slabs of log chain sawed off following each goal – all three slices.
“They were definitely heavy,” Johnson said. “I never even knew that was a tradition here. The fans here, man, they’re extraordinary.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.