Ben Zemanski: Portland’s Most Important Player

Portland MF takes starting place of injured Johnson for rest of season
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, October 03, 2014

Green Logs - a column on the Portland Timbers & the Portland soccer scene

Suddenly, one of the most important players on the Portland Timbers is Ben Zemanski.

The same Ben Zemanski who has played just nine MLS matches in 2014 for the Timbers, whether due to injury or a coach’s decision. But that might not matter.

With the broken leg that has put Will Johnson out of action until April, Zemanski has been thrust into the lineup. He came in for Johnson after the Portland captain was injured in the first minute in Toronto on Saturday and played decently alongside Diego Chara in the middle for long stretches of the match.

But now Zemanski, who has been Johnson’s backup for much of his two seasons in Portland, is in the hot seat. With four MLS matches remaining and the Timbers trying to bounce back from the devastating loss in Toronto, how he plays in the middle may be a factor in whether Portland can get in the playoffs or if they’re on the outside looking in at the end of October.

It has been an up and down season for Zemanski. After a solid first season in 2013 where he established himself as a steady backup to Johnson, he has gone from struggling to see playing time to starting, from sitting out much of the midseason with a concussion (suffered during the win at New York on May 24) to steadily working his way back into the lineup and playing an important role in two CONCACAF Champions League wins.

Of course, Zemanski has been a steady starter in MLS before. He was a regular in the Chivas USA starting lineup during his first three seasons in the league, with 17 starts in his rookie season in 2010, 23 starts in 2011 and 18 starts in 2012.

He also is also one of the Akron alums that Caleb Porter has been steadily bringing to Portland over the past two seasons. He played for Porter in 2006-09, and was traded from the Goats to the Timbers during the 2013 preseason. Portland gave up the rights to Jonathan Bornstein (who the Timbers took in the 2010 expansion draft from Chivas USA, but has played in Mexico since 2011) and allocation money for Zemanski, who also played with Darlington Nagbe while with his hometown Zips.

So the position Zemanski is now in isn’t an unfamiliar one. He’s been a steady starter in MLS before, and he knows what Porter expects from him (and what to expect from Porter). But the stakes now are much higher. He also was a fill-in starter in the midfield earlier this season, starting against Columbus and at New York when Chara was recovering from a broken hand.

One thing that Zemanski isn’t is a Will Johnson clone. His strength is as a holding central midfielder who doesn’t come forward as aggressively as Johnson does. Zemanski only has 3 goals in his MLS career, two in 2011 with Chivas USA and one with the Timbers in 2013 (in Chicago on June 8). When he started alongside Johnson in May, Zemanski tended to sit back a bit while Johnson pushed the attack forward, playing more to his strengths. He’s also not the fiery competitor that Johnson is, and someone other than Zemanski will likely take over the captaincy. But all Porter wants from Zemanski is that he plays the game in his style, and with how coach and player know each other, a relative comfort zone will be reached.

Sometimes, Zemanski does become a hindrance. It was his 87th minute penalty on DeAndre Yedlin in the April 5 home match against Seattle that led to Clint Dempsey’s match-tying goal that capped a wild 4-4 draw. He also was noticeable struggling with Toronto’s physicality late in that loss, which could become an issue with a home-and-home with San Jose coming up next. Even without the injured Stephen Lenhart and being out of the playoff race, the Quakes will still play their physical game that gives Portland plenty of trouble, and that could test Zemanski greatly.

Beyond San Jose, there is a home match with Real Salt Lake and the MLS season finale at FC Dallas. Between the RSL and FCD matches is a trip to Honduras to play Olimpia, which will determine whether Portland moves on to the spring knockout stage of the CCL. Assuming he stays healthy, Zemanski will likely feature in all the MLS matches. He didn’t play against Olimpia in Portland in mid-September, but Johnson did. Whether Zemanski plays in that match will likely depend on how important the FC Dallas match ends up being.

How Zemanski plays in these final matches may also determine his professional future. His contract with the Timbers is up at the end of the season, and a strong performance could get him a new contract in Portland or elsewhere. He could also attract the attention of Orlando City and New York City FC, as the two expansion clubs look to build their rosters after the season.

If there’s any time for Ben Zemanksi to step up big, now is the time. The Timbers need him to come through strong, and the more comfortable he gets in his new role, the better he can help Portland try to get into the playoffs.

He’s not Will Johnson. But the opportunity is there for Ben Zemanski to prove he can be a starter at the MLS level. All he has to do is be himself.

NEXT UP: October 4 – Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara, Cal. 11:00 p.m. EST, NBC Sports Network.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
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Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.