The Portland Timbers' Sunday matinee matchup with Toronto FC (12:30 PM, TV on ESPN) is about as big as a Spring MLS game gets — a meeting of the defending champions and league's most expensive team in the caldron that is Providence Park.
But for the Timbers and their fans, Sunday will hold significance for a different reason: The return of Will Johnson to the Rose City.
Few players have changed the culture of the Timbers organization more than Johnson did when he arrived ahead of the 2013 season. In three years captaining the club, Johnson's competitiveness and commitment were outstanding — and it was a cruel twist of fate that the tactical switch that instigated the MLS Cup ran last year was the one that made Johnson surplus to requirements in Portland.
Johnson has settled very nicely in Toronto — starting every game so far this season and leading the team in assists. But for a player who always had such a visceral, fierce, unwavering connection to the Timbers Army and Timbers organization, Sunday will be emotional. Most everyone loves playing in Portland, but few have ever loved it like Will did.
The Timbers are unbeaten at home against Toronto FC — but that's not saying much. The teams haven't played at Providence Park since 2013, before what can be called the modern era of TFC football. Portland's last two trips to Toronto, meanwhile, have been miserable.
Ironically enough, it was the broken leg suffered by Will Johnson at BMO Field in 2014 that started the series of events that led to his trade to Toronto this offseason. That injury came at the very beginning of a game in which the Timbers blew a 2-0 lead, and effectively eliminated themselves from the playoffs.
Last year, the Timbers went down 1-0 to TFC in late May by way of a fabulous Sebastian Giovinco goal — a setback that left Portland mired in ninth place in the Western Conference and sparked a supporters' protest on the following Wednesday night before a game against DC United. Some six and a half months later, of course, the same Timbers team would lift MLS Cup.
For the likes of Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, this game will mark a first trip to Portland to face the Timbers. But all eyes will be on Johnson, who should receive a rapturous reception.
The Timbers will get a major piece back on Sunday when Liam Ridgewell makes his first start since Opening Day. Ridgewell was badly missed, and his return should boost the entire team.
Diego Valeri's return from a red card suspension, meanwhile, should energize an offense that lacked spark in New England on Wednesday night. With Valeri back in the team, Caleb Porter can revert to the 4-3-3 formation that spelled the end of Johnson's time in Portland last year.
Porter's biggest lineup decision is on the wing opposite Lucas Melano, where Dairon Asprilla, Jack Barmby, and Darren Mattocks are options. All three players appeared as substitutes on Wednesday night — though it was Barmby who was first off the bench and repaid his coach's trust with his first goal for the club.
Toronto is on the final leg of a monstrous seven-game road trip to start the season as the club completes a second stage of renovations on BMO Field. But while they are certainly fatigued, Portland gets the Reds coming off of their best win of the year — a thorough 2-0 triumph over the rival Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo.
90 - Gleeson
16 - Valentin
24 - Ridgewell (C)
7 - Borchers
15 - Klute
21 - Chara
6 - Nagbe
8 - Valeri
11 - Asprilla
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
The Timbers appear to be on the upswing after several solid performances, but this year's Toronto team is no joke. With tons of attacking talent — and, increasingly for both teams, defensive fortitude — on display, it'll finish as an entertaining 1-1 draw.