After the Portland Timbers’ 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake on Saturday, after the home team made their way around the pitch thanking the supporters, and after Donovan Ricketts collected another log for his clean sheet, Will Johnson was presented as the Timbers’ 2013 Supporters’ Player of the Year.
In many respects, winning the Supporter’s Player of the Year is a big deal. Generally, it doesn’t go to the best player on the team, rather it goes to the player that has played most consistently with heart, bravery, and has connected with the culture of the club.
Captain Will certainly fits those criteria. In a career year, Johnson has established himself as the fiery leader of a once punchless team, routinely coming up with big goals and big tackles. Leading from the front, Johnson has fed off the Timbers Army, and the Army has fed off him.
But to say Johnson won the vote, open to any and all fans through the Timbers’ Army website, in a plurality would be an understatement. Johnson won with only 29% of the vote. Donovan Ricketts only trailed him by a few hundred votes, and Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Diego Chara all were within striking distance.
There’s no easy answer to the question of who has been the Timbers’ most valuable or best player this year. But a case can be made for quite a few candidates.
– The recipient of the Supporter’s POY award – the Players’ POY award will be presented at the team’s annual end of season banquet – Johnson has made his mark in Portland. From the moment he arrived, Johnson inserted a kind of nastiness needed in the Timbers. Coming from a winning culture in Salt Lake, and immediately identified as a leader for Portland, Johnson was as important as any player in hauling the Timbers up from the MLS ashes and rewriting the psychology of a losing team that suffered a full-blown identity crisis in 2012.
To call Johnson an instigator doesn’t quite do the midfielder justice. There is no one better in MLS at toeing the line and not crossing it, no one better at instigating a fight, and then not taking part in it. We’ve seen Johnson jawing with opposition players countless times this year, but how many times have we actually seen him booked? Just four times in 2,430 minutes of action.
This is the man that Alan Gordon spouted a homophobic slur at, that Osvaldo Alonso elbowed in the throat, and that countless coaches have wearily sized up as an instigator to be avoided. The intensity and focus in Johnson’s game is evident. But he just gets under your skin enough to make you bleed, and then get out unscathed.
On the field, Johnson has been vital as part of the Timbers’ dynamic midfield pivot with Diego Chara. He doesn’t have the most talent, but he’s solid on the ball, works hard off of it, and has sprung up with timely goals at times this year. The Timbers don’t quite click without Will, who was missing during the team’s only real slump of the season in July. Johnson has a career high eight goals and five assists, with a gorgeous free-kick to beat San Jose in a mega-charged game in April serving as the main highlight.
Johnson has also been perfect from the spot as a penalty taker, and started the All-Star game as the Timbers’ only representative.
– This much is clear: No one has saved the Timbers’ more points that Donovan Ricketts this season. His numbers are gaudy – 15 clean sheets, 10 save of the week awards, and the least goals per game conceded in MLS. It’s been a renaissance from the quiet man with the big saves, who was considered by most to be washed up when the Timbers acquired him last year.
Trading Troy Perkins for Donovan Ricketts may have been Caleb Porter’s most singularly beneficial move as Portland head coach. The trade frustrated at the time, and it came before Porter was officially installed as Portland boss, but it was up to the incoming manager to green-light the deal. He did, wanting a big goalkeeper and realizing that Ricketts could simply do things in net that Perkins and most other ‘keepers in MLS can’t. Montreal thought they were stealing Perkins. Turns out, they got burned.
Still, the revival of the Jamaican couldn’t have been entirely predicted by Porter or anyone in Portland. Ricketts hadn’t played a full season for the same team since the 2010 campaign with LA, and at 35 years old, it appeared his agility was slipping away.
But Ricketts has been sensational this year, churning out highlight reel saves born from a 20 year old’s reflexes and a giant’s wingspan. Porter has been able to just throw him back in net and count on at least one goal flying back out of the net. Ricketts’ confidence also grew over the year, from a point where a horrible piece of miscommunication and a failure to pick up the ball gifted New York the first goal of the year, to the point where last weekend he dribbled an attacker, played an excellent ball 25 yards from goal and almost tallied an assist.
Separate shutout streaks at home have threatened and broke MLS records. Ricketts has saved Portland at least 15 points this year, maybe more, with saves against Seattle, New England, Dallas, Vancouver, and LA standing out. Perkins isn’t making those saves. Ricketts is also as steady as they come, studious and religious; he has quietly wielded a huge presence over Portland’s backline, and cast a shadow over his goal at Jeld-Wen Field.
– I said in a column in July 2012 that the Portland Timbers’ next coach would have to understand and get the best out of Nagbe. His raw talent has been so tantalizingly obvious, it’s seemed like he just needed a good shake for that talent to fall out.
Caleb Porter obviously knows how to work with Nagbe. It was under Porter that Nagbe made his name, and won the Herman Trophy at Akron. Still very much a shy kid, Nagbe needed someone in charge to get him out of his shell – not make him meaner, as the saying goes around Darlington, just give him some confidence.
Porter has given Nagbe the keys to the kingdom. John Spencer could never quite figure out where to play his best player – up top, through the middle, on the wing – and so Porter just lets Nagbe choose. In Portland’s 2013 system, Nagbe occupies a free role, floating around the opposition backline. It’s allowed Nagbe to play in a variety of spaces and get on the ball, which always a good thing for the Timbers. When Nagbe gets enough of the ball, he takes over the game.
It’s safe to say that this is the year that Nagbe’s soccer ascendancy started. The consistency has picked up, as has the production, and Nagbe has started every Timbers MLS game in 2013. No longer does he fade away or go missing in games, and no longer is there a problem finding a final product. Nagbe has been able to tack on the finish to his impeccable ball control and dribbling ability. Nine goals and multiple game winners lead the team.
Rated the best player under 24 in MLS, Nagbe is a can’t-miss talent. With #6, we’re seeing the future – and the present.
– From the moment he stepped onto the field and dinked and dunked his way through the New York defense for the Timbers’ first goal of the year, Diego Valeri’s class has been evident.
The Timbers’ MLS MVP candidate, Valeri is the consummate #10 – a magician on the ball, with panache and moxie to boot. Valeri’s numbers – eight goals and twelve assists – speak volumes, but when Valeri is not on the field or not fit, the Timbers’ overall quality of play, not to mention set-piece potency, falls through a trapped door. There are only a few players in MLS who do better things with the ball more frequently than Valeri.
Against Toronto in Septmeber, Portland labored through 80 minutes without Valeri, holding a 1-0 lead. In the 15 minutes Valeri was on the field, Portland scored three times. Valeri was involved in all three goals. Things don’t quite tick with Valeri out – not only can he pick a pass, Valeri can score, and he’s hit the post more than any other player in MLS.
One look at Valeri and you realize, like you do with Donovan Ricketts, that this is a player who doesn’t need direction or coaching. Just put him out on the field with some teammates and the ball, and he’ll make things happen. The most technically gifted Timber ever.
– Chara won the award in 2012, and anyone who doesn’t recognize his ability just doesn’t understand soccer. No one works harder, runs more, is less selfish, or is more workmanlike than Diego Chara.
Just watch Diego for 90 minutes. Just him. Just watch Chara. By the 70th minute, you’ll be dizzy from watching up charge up and down the field. By the 80th minute, it’ll look like everyone but Chara is going in slow motion. By the 90th minute, you won’t have enough fingers to count the times when Chara chased a play for two or three minutes, and then finally made a tackle or an interception.
I don’t know how he doesn’t, but I know it isn’t fair. Diego Chara can just run and run and run. He’s pugnacious and tenacious, and he just doesn’t stop, for however long it takes. The Timbers need Chara. He’s the one who covers all the ground, and who halts breakaways, and starts counters. He’s everywhere. He’s not afraid to get stuck-in and get booked, and that allows the likes of Nagbe, Valeri and others to stay above the muck and just play offense.
Chara’s roots are as an attacking midfielder, and while his lack of finishing ability and confidence is obvious, Chara is an underrated ball-player. He also can dribble, especially as other players tire, going on game-winning runs like the one against Houston earlier in the year.
Listed generally at 5’8, 150 pounds, Chara is the type of player everyone loves playing with. He won’t back down – he’s not so much behind the scenes as he is smack in the middle of every scene.
All these players are deserving, and others may be too – Rodney Wallace or Ryan Johnson for their vital goals, anyone? Kalif Alhassan, if just for that game and goal against Seattle? There are a few cons for the five players listed above, but not many. It’s hard to pick apart their games.
It’s impossible to choose. I’m voting for Caleb Porter.