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A Captain with the Audacity to Win

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers and Will Johnson parted ways on Friday, bringing to a close a remarkable three-year run in which the club, with Johnson as its captain, rose from irrelevance to preeminence.

Johnson’s departure from Portland comes after a season in which he struggled to make his way back from a broken leg and eventually lost his starting spot within the team. In the end, Johnson made just one appearance during the Timbers’ historic run this fall: A one-minute cameo in stoppage time of the first leg of the Western Conference Final.

That cameo on a chilly November evening at Providence Park, it turned out, was Johnson's curtain call. It was the captain's last appearance at Providence Park in green and gold.

But it was a curtain call that few noticed at the time, with the crowd singing the Timbers to a first-leg victory that they would ride to a berth in the MLS Cup Final. In a moment in which the Providence Park crowd was focused on the quest for the trophy that the Timbers would capture just two weeks later, Johnson’s final appearance at the home ground was an afterthought.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest testament to the impact that Will Johnson had on the Timbers.

When Johnson arrived in Portland, the Timbers were fresh off a season in which they finished with 34 points, in eighth place in the Western Conference, and with the third worst record in MLS. After an acceptable inaugural season, the wheels came off the Timbers’ wagon in year two.

As a result, the coach was gone. The high-priced DP was gone. And the Timbers were starting over.

Johnson first came to Providence Park as a Timber on a cold January morning in 2013. The coach was new. The DP was new. And the captain was new.

But the shadow of 2012 lingered. Even the most optimistic observers recognized that building out of the ruins of the 2012 Timbers would likely take years. And Johnson wasn’t blind to that.

The challenge is turning this team into a playoff-caliber team -- turning it into a contender every year -- and not just a team with good fans. Not just a team with a lot of good support. It needs to be a winning team.

From his first day in Portland, Johnson was keenly aware of the issues the club had in its brief MLS history before he arrived. And throughout the Timbers’ first two seasons in MLS, no problem was bigger than their road form.

Johnson, in fact, was so aware of the Timbers’ problems away from Providence Park that, without any prompting, he twice raised the issue in his first interview after arriving in Portland.

Winning on the road needs to be an absolute priority, and it’s something that hasn’t gone right in the first two seasons. It’s an extremely difficult challenge -- especially when you’re assembling a new team -- but it’s something that we have to figure out a way to do, otherwise we’ll be on the outside looking in again and I don’t see that as an option.

Take a moment to consider the audacity of Johnson’s final point -- that being on the outside looking in again wasn’t an option -- in light of the fact that at that time the club was still picking up the pieces from one of the worst seasons in its history.

But the press gaggle wasn’t the only place where Johnson showed that audacity. He showed it when he won the armband after his first training camp in Portland. He showed it when he paced off the eight yards to a wall set too close to his free kick. He showed it when he praised his team’s heart of a lion, but called out its brain of a goldfish. He showed it when he scored an incredible juggling volley against the Fire in 2013 only to do so again against the Whitecaps in 2014. He showed it when his team’s away form improved from third worst in MLS before he arrived to second best in MLS during his tenure in Portland.

And he showed the fulfillment of that audacity when he, along with Liam Ridgewell, lifted the MLS Cup two weeks ago in Columbus.

In the locker room after lifting the trophy, Johnson -- fully aware that an offseason move out of Portland was imminent -- reflected on his time in the Rose City and what the title meant as the capstone of his captaincy on Morrison Street.

It’s everything. I had a vision. I picked this club because I saw the potential from the ground up. I knew there were pieces in place where you could -- and now it sounds easy to say -- but there were pieces in place where you could build something quickly.

As soccer players we have a few years to make good of our prime, and our play, and all the rest of it, and I knew that this was an opportunity and that we would succeed. I knew it. The fans. The club. We would’ve been good.

So we got going in the right direction. I saw the potential. And now we’re here.

Johnson came to Portland with the audacity to envision winning in a place that at the time looked far from capable of doing so.

Simply put, Will Johnson taught the Portland Timbers how to win.

Which brings us back to Johnson's final appearance on the Providence Park field in a Timbers uniform; the moment in which the Timbers seized control of the series that would punch the club's ticket to its first MLS Cup Final.

In that moment the Providence Park crowd rose to its feet not to bid farewell to the club's departing captain, but in exaltation of a team that was no longer on the outside looking in. And in doing so, the Timbers faithful celebrated the club becoming what Johnson set out to make it three years before.

Far from being an afterthought in the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup in 2015, therefore, Johnson was the man who had the audacity to envision the club's path from the bottom of the league to the top of the trophy stand.

And then he made it reality.