Long-awaited return of Rodney Wallace gives Portland Timbers another attacking option

PORTLAND, Ore. – The rousing applause said it all: Rodney Wallace is back.

And the Portland Timbers winger who last took the field in the 2013 Western Conference Championship of the MLS Cup Playoffs, when he tore his ACL against Real Salt Lake, said the warm welcome as he emerged from the tunnel at Providence Park for a US Open Cup game Tuesday was something he’d always remember.

“It gave me the chills, for sure,” said Wallace, whose 80-minute shift in the Timbers’ 3-0 win over the Orlando City U-23s was his first action for Portland after more than six months of rehab following offseason surgery. “It was something special. I had never experienced anything like that in my career. Very thankful and I appreciate all the love and support and I’m just happy to be back and putting on a Timbers jersey.”

The return of Wallace, who had a breakout season last year with a career-high seven goals following a move from defense to an outside forward position, also comes at an opportune time for the Timbers, who are balancing USOC, league and future CONCACAF Champions League games in the coming months. They’ll face Sporting Kansas City on the road Tuesday in a fifth-round USOC game (8:30 pm ET).

 And while Portland’s early-season offensive struggles appear to be a thing of the past, head coach Caleb Porter continues to say the more attacking options available the better.

“It was great to see him back and healthy and good to know now that he’s an option,” Porter said following the win over Orlando City’s PDL side.

Not being able to contribute to the club while working through the rehabilitation process apart from the group is always challenging for a player. The Timbers also appeared to miss Wallace’s contributions as they integrated new pieces into the attack.

He’ll join Darlington Nagbe, Steve Zakuani, Kalif Alhassan and Gaston Fernandez (who has played on the wing and at center forward) as outside options.

“I think from this point on it’s competition, it’s work,” Wallace said of his role on the team. “That’s where I want to be, and that’s what I’ve been working toward. Nothing is going to be handed to me; nothing is handed to any player in this club. I’m just actually pleased with the ability to compete and then from then on it’s up to the coach’s decision and whoever he wants to put in.”

This isn’t the first serious injury Wallace has come back from. He had his 2010 season with D.C. United cut short following a fractured left fibula, preceding his trade to Portland. He said this time around he approached the work differently.

“I think that now I’m at a stage of my career where I’ve matured and I understand what it takes to really put in the work to get back to match fitness,” he said. “…I put in a lot of hard work in my rehab, and look I’m not done, I’m satisfied where I’m at right now. I’ve still got a long way to go, and my goal is just to keep getting better and help the team out.”

Wallace returned to training more than a month ago, steadily increasing his work load leading up to a two-game loan last week with USL PRO side Arizona United SC.

Porter certainly liked what he saw from the player he said “brings a lot to the table.”

“I thought honest he looked exactly like last year,” Porter said. “It looked like he was completely back, 100-percent, in every regard, physically, tactically, technically and mentally.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.