Timbers’ Zizzo returning to his old self

Recovering from knee injury has held back winger

By Paul Danzer, Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter

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PORTLAND — It has taken 10 months, but Sal Zizzo is beginning to look like the player who in 2011 used his speed and aggressiveness to both excite Portland Timbers fans and worry opposing coaches.

The 25-year-old winger started both Timbers matches on last week’s swing to Toronto and New York. In Toronto he scored his first MLS goal as a Timber. At New York, he assisted on both Portland goals and had a chance to add another goal.

With the Vancouver Whitecaps visiting Portland Saturday for a Cascadia Cup match, might Zizzo add some spice to play as the Timbers chase the only prize remaining to them in 2012?

Just two weeks ago, interim coach Gavin Wilkinson noted, Zizzo was not even among the 18 players suiting up for MLS games. In trying to rebound from an October 2011 knee injury, Zizzo played in only nine of the Timbers first 19 MLS games and had started only once.

After playing in 30 of Portland’s 34 matches in 2011, Zizzo said it was tough to work into match shape with few chances to play, and frustrating to be outside the core of the lineup. To make sure he would be fit when his chance to play came, Zizzo joined younger reserve players for additional training sessions, and did some extra weight lifting with trainer John Ireland.

That work was rewarded when Zizzo started the Timbers’ Aug. 15 match in Toronto. He scored an opportunistic goal to end Portland’s league-record scoring drought away from home.

“Getting the goal there kind of took some weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I didn’t have to really think about it (anymore) and I could just play.”

Four days later, Zizzo assisted on goals that put Portland ahead 2-0 at New York, one of the top teams in MLS. He was one of several Timbers who had good chances to add another goal in what wound up as a 3-2 loss to the Red Bulls.

That result just added to the pile of disappointment for the Timbers this season. But it also provided evidence that injuries to Zizzo, Franck Songo’o and Kalif Alhassan have severely impacted the 2012 Timbers.

Alhassan isn’t expected to be available until next week. But Zizzo’s speed on the right, and the clever play of Songo’o on the opposite wing, have proven to be threats the Timbers lacked for long stretches of the season.

Having those two players healthy at the same time has also opened up space for Darlington Nagbe to attack, giving opposing defenders more to worry about and — just maybe — giving Timbers fans something real to be excited about.