The Portland Timbers' game with the Colorado Rapids last Saturday at Dicks' Sporting Goods Park had loss written all over it. Besides the fact that Colorado had crisscrossed Portland for six goals in lopsided 3-1 and 3-0 wins in 2011 and 2012, gusting wind was the Denver weather attraction of the day, and it seemed like it would blow Portland right back to the Rose City in Caleb Porter's first MLS game outside the Pacific Northwest. Throw in a dash of bad luck, incompetent refereeing, a pre-game injury scratch and a pronounced rustiness after the team's bye-week and the FIFA international break, and it didn't seem like the Timbers had much of a chance.
Colorado is a tough trip for the Timbers for a number of reasons. Dicks' Sporting Goods Park is where the Timbers opened their MLS journey over two years ago by being thwacked by the defending MLS champion Rapids, and while Colorado's on-field fortunes have declined since the club's 2010 title, Portland has never come into Colorado games in particularly good condition. While the Timbers were bringing their most talented lineup ever to a match in Colorado, as the action kicked off, it was easy to get a bad feeling about the direction of the game.
The atmosphere at DSG Park was completely dead, and it was easy to forget that around 10,000 fans were in attendance - save for the moments when a group of Rapids supporters bizarrely booed the nearest opposition player to them. At altitude, in swirling winds, it was Colorado's kind of game, and the Rapids shoot on sight policy - perhaps necessitated by the fact that most of Colorado's players had a difficult time dribbling - paid off in the 18th minute.
The Timbers have gone down early in games this season in all kinds of fashions - horrific mistakes, bicycle kicks and counter-attacks - but Dillon Powers' pile-drive smash that gave the Rapids a 1-0 lead was pure skill. The Timbers didn't quite have the kind of focus and tenacity they showed in their first three matches in the first-half against Colorado, but a comical penalty call by MLS referee Drew Fischer, officiating his ninth match, woke the Timbers up. Unfortunately, the Timbers were down 2-0 at that point thanks to Hendry Thomas converting the spot-kick. But fortunately, at their best, the Timbers were much better than the host Rapids.
Actually, it wasn't so much the Timbers who were better than the Rapids, it was Will Johnson who was better than the Rapids. After coolly heading home Ryan Johnson's cross, the Timbers new skipper transformed into a one-man wrecking crew.
When David Horst was hacked down in the area, and referee Drew Fischer pointed to the spot, it was possibly a make-up call - if Fischer knows what a make-up call is. Whatever the case, it was a soft penalty, and it wouldn't have been hard to guess that with the state of MLS refereeing; the Timbers' historic streak of games without a spot-kick would end with a penalty that wasn't clear, or possibly wasn't even right.
It seemed natural that Johnson would step up to take the penalty - a clear sign of the influence he is already exerting with this Portland team. It seemed even more natural that Johnson would expertly convert the penalty, despite the Colorado 'keeper guessing the right way, and Johnson’s screaming, wind-meeling on-spot reaction to his conversion was a forceful announcement of his arrival with the Timbers.
But it wasn't just his goals - in the second half, Johnson provided a defensive wall for the Timbers leaky back-line, with shuddering tackles and crunching challenges. Johnson wasn't playing recklessly; he managed to not get booked on a night when the referee was pulling cards out of his pocket every minute he wasn't falling down. Johnson lived up to his potential Saturday and changed the game.
The number of players the Timbers have who can change a game is encouraging. We've already seen Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe turn contests around, and we now know that Will Johnson has that capability as well. The key is getting those three players clicking at the same time, like they were for stretches against New York and Montreal. The Timbers played their worst all-around game of the season against Colorado, and they got a result mostly because of one player. Teams with that capability don't lose many games.
The few who turned up Saturday to watch the Timbers and the Rapids didn't see a great game. They saw an abridged version of pinball for the majority of the 90 minutes - both teams had numerous chances and failed to play clean soccer for most of the game. Portland's defense was shaky and looked slow, although David Horst did an admirable job filling in for Mikael Silvestre, who the Timbers missed for his leadership and steadiness.
Yes, the Timbers are still looking for a first win as we enter the second month of the MLS season, but Portland navigated a multiple-game road trip without losing - something the 2012 team couldn't ever say - and now come home for two big games against two big teams: Houston and San Jose.
If this game in Colorado had loss written all over it before it started, it had loss written all over it in all caps after Thomas made it 2-0 Colorado after 48 minutes. Last year, it would have finished 4-0. This year, we get 2-2, but more importantly, if they Timbers had lost this game last year, we wouldn't have blamed them. Now, after rallying for two second-half goals to get a point and end the game on the ascent, we can't say we are the least bit surprised. That's progress.