Portland Timbers boast diminutive, determined midfield combo in Diego Chara, Will Johnson

Chara & Will Johnson providing spark for club in middle of the pitch

PORTLAND, Ore. – Diego Chara and Will Johnson couldn’t have come from more different soccer backgrounds.

Chara was born in Cali, Colombia and climbed through the youth ranks of his native club, Deportes Quindio. Johnson, born in Canada to English parents less than a year after Chara, grew up playing soccer while attending a boarding school in Liverpool before moving to the Blackburn Rovers youth academy.

Chara joined the Portland Timbers in May 2011 as the club’s first Designated Player, and has emerged as the steadiest player from an underwhelming group of Colombian professionals who flocked to MLS two years ago.

Johnson is an MLS handyman with roots reaching back to 2005 with the Chicago Fire and then a stellar five-run with Real Salt Lake that made him one of the biggest offseason pickups in league last winter.

Now that their career paths have converged in Portland, they couldn’t have become more similar players, and they’ve formed a perfect partnership as central midfielders and the glue during the team’s unprecedented start to an MLS season.

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“These two guys are, for me, dominant box-to-box midfielders,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “They’ve been bringing it every single game, those two guys. They’re in a position where they don’t always show up on the score sheet because they do a lot of the dirty work, but they’re in the heart of our team and they’re our engine room.”

Both diminutive, gritty players, Johnson and Chara have done it all for the Timbers this year.

Offensively, they’re the table setters in a possession-based attack that has produced the second-most goals (18) in the league this year. Johnson is tied for the team lead with four goals, while Chara is tied for second on the team with three assists.

Defensively, they both play crucial roles filling the space in front of the center backs and, most importantly, putting the brakes on the opposition’s midfield build-up.

“We both cover so much ground and are so fit and if he sees me going he doesn’t try to go as well,” Johnson said. “We’re not competing against each other to see who can be the best center-mid on the team, we’re working together. The honesty and respect that we show to one another is building a really good relationship.

“I don’t think a whole lot of people, especially center midfielders, are excited to play against [us] in the middle of the park.”

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Their roles were on perfect display Sunday in Portland’s 3-0 rout of Chivas USA. Chara had 47 successful passes, four interceptions and one successful tackle. Johnson had 33 successful passes, two tackles and a clinical, MLS Goal of the Week nominated bending strike in second-half stoppage time.

“You can see they’re sharing the responsibility defensively,” Porter said. “We always want one guy at least plugging what I call ‘the hole,’ which is the space in front of the center backs. You can see at times Will is in that hole, you can see at times Chara is in that hole.

“And they’re also sharing the responsibility of getting forward because we do want at least one of those two guys bombing on and slashing forward at the right times. You can see at times it’s Will and Diego sits, and you can see at times it’s Diego and Will sits.”

It did, however, take some time for the two to gain that chemistry. Early in the year Portland showed a glaring vulnerability in the counter attack, and they gave up eight goals in their first four games. Porter said they watched a lot of video and focused in training on how Johnson and Chara play off each other.

Since that first month, Portland have given up just four goals in their last seven games without sacrificing either one’s playmaking abilities in the attack.

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“It’s just understanding each other, trusting each other, being responsible,” Johnson said of their relationship. “He’s a really good player. I’ve been very impressed playing with him. And I think he’s shining this year as well now that he’s got some better pieces around him. He’s really turning into a top-level player and getting to where this team needs him to be.”

And their unlikely partnership will be put to the test once again in a key Western Conference and Cascadia Cup matchup Saturday at the Vancouver Whitecaps, who feature dangerous midfielders Daigo Kobayashi and Nigel Reo-Cocker.

The Timbers, though, feel pretty good about their own midfield combination, and where it’s taken them so far.

“Those two guys are putting the work in,” Porter said, “and it’s making us go.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.