While the Portland Timbers prepare for Thursday's Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals second leg challenge (7:30pm PT, FS1 | Match presented by Carl's Jr.), the man who scored the first postseason goal of the club’s Major League Soccer era is over 3,000 miles away, even though he still calls the Rose City home.
Five years ago, Ryan Johnson reached the apex of his only season with the Timbers by scoring the opening goal of the team’s Western Conference Semifinal, which just happened to be against rival Seattle Sounders FC. Fifteen minutes into that first playoff experience, while his team was still carrying the Cinderella feel of their unlikely first-place finish, Johnson quelled any notion that Portland’s regular-season success wouldn’t carry over.
Come full time in Seattle, the Timbers had a 2-1 win and eventually went on to eliminate the Sounders, 5-3 on aggregate after the next leg in Portland.
“That was a huge one,” Johnson remembers of his goal, speaking from the sidelines in Bradenton, Florida, where he’s scouting the 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship at the IMG Academy. Taking a moment before a match between Canada and Panama, the former Jamaican international recalled one of his career’s standout moments.
“There are a lot of things that I forget …” Johnson concedes, about his career, “but I remember that cross from Jack Jewsbury. It was just perfect, near post.
“It was one of those goals that happen so fast, and it was just perfect. We worked on it for weeks and weeks, and we pulled it off. We went on to win that game, and it was a huge moment for us.”
Teams work for months on specific movements, trying to master them with a precision that can, at some unknown moment in the future, translate into a goal. The dynamics of each match test that familiarity, challenging teammates to change their reads, runs and passing for specific opponents, but only a quarter-hour into that 2013 playoff debut, one of Portland’s trained movements came good.
Just like so much before, throughout the duration of a magical 2013 regular season, the plan just, plainly, worked.
“It was just one of those things where, when (head coach) Caleb (Porter) and (President of Soccer) Gavin (Wilkinson) assembled that team,” Johnson remembers, “they really wanted guys who had the mentality, guys who were hungry to win and really make their mark in the league. As a professional, that’s what it takes to be successful.”
Johnson had spent six seasons in Major League Soccer before returning to Oregon, where he had previously enjoyed four seasons at Oregon State. Once he went pro, the 36-time Jamaican international jumped from Salt Lake City to Chicago, then to Sweden, San Jose, and finally Toronto before landing in Portland.
By then, Johnson was 28 years old, and while he’d been a regular contributor at most of his stops, he wasn’t a player coaches built teams around. That initially fostered doubts in a fanbase that’d had high hopes for, over the team’s first two MLS seasons, strikers Kenny Cooper and Kris Boyd, but in time, Johnson’s versatility proved a perfect fit for Porter’s lone-striker system.
That he hadn’t been an All-Star blended perfectly into a team that would be built around former Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS star-to-be in Diego Valeri, and the presence of a talismanic midfielder, Diego Chara. Jewsbury, Michael Harrington and Donovan Ricketts joined Ryan Johnson in adding experience, something that proved crucial as the team prepared for Seattle.
“You can’t go into games thinking the moment is too big for you,” Johnson says. “We went into the game and really had the confidence in ourselves and collectively, as a group. Everybody leaned on each other for team spirit, and we really worked for each other.”
Five years later, eliminating the Sounders remains one of the emotional high points of the Timbers’ short MLS history.
“It worked out in the end,” Johnson says. “It’s really one of those examples of if you go into it with the right mentality and you don’t play defensive, play scared, play reactive, you can really take points on the road away. We know that’s something that’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
Johnson left Portland after the 2013 season and spent two years in Asia, where he split time between South Korea and China. He briefly returned to playing life in the U.S., linking up with the USL’s OKC Energy for a few months, before his transition into retirement.
Now, Johnson is part of Pro Sport Management, where a new career as a player agent is just getting started.
“Obviously, football has been my life since I’ve been a little kid,” he says, “and to be able to give back and help the next generation of players is, for me, the next step of what I want to do and what I want to accomplish.
“There are obviously different ways you can give back – coaching is one of them; mentoring and speaking is one of them – but as an agent, you can do a lot of those things. You just are really important in professional players’ lives, and I want to be one of those guys that does things the right way, be in the corner of players, and really root for them, and really help them along the process.”
Johnson’s career path is one that speaks to the importance of an athlete’s presentation, highlighting the importance of having skilled people around you – those who can find your career’s next stop. Helping the next Ryan Johnsons with that struggle will be the former Timber’s next contribution to the sport.
“There are a lot of highs and lows,” he explains. “You need someone that has that experience, to really help them when they’re on the lows and keep the level when they’re on the highs. Because there a lot of ups and downs.”
Now off the field, settled with his family in Portland, Johnson is a regular around the Rose City’s soccer scene, popping up at both marquee events and more mundane appointments, like afternoons and evenings with the University of Portland’s teams, at Merlo Field. Though he only spent one season in Green and Gold, his identity is Oregon, compelling him to keep the state’s soccer community close to his heart.
“Portland has felt like home for me since I came here on my recruiting trip when I was 16 or 17 or so,” he says. “I fell in love with the state. I chose Portland as the place where I wanted to raise my family. It’s my second home, and now my permanent home.
“I really care about this state. I’m happy to help the players within Portland and try to be part of the community as best that I can. Because after having a career, you just want to give back the best way that you can, when you have the time.”
That his contribution in Seattle five years ago authored a part of Timbers lore will forever keep him close to fans’ hearts. But in staying close to Portland, Johnson’s made it clear: He plans to keep them close to his heart, too.