Building the Spine: Portland Timbers' brain trust explain their Designated Player master plan
BEAVERTON, Ore. – In the span of three days, the Portland Timbers made two moves they hope will solidify the spine of their club for the coming years.
Signing striker Fanendo Adi on June 23 and then central defender Liam Ridgewell two days later, both to Designated Player contracts, to go along with DP attacking midfielder Diego Valeri, gives the Timbers their highest-paid players at key positions along the back line, midfield and up top.
It is a strategy of building a complete team that is not focused on spending big money on big-name attacking talent but on addressing specific needs, both head coach Caleb Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com – even if that means spending on a less-than-sexy defender in Ridgewell, who will become just the third DP defender in MLS history when he joins the team this week.
It may sound simple, but with a majority of the DP dollars being spent on forwards, it’s relatively uncommon in MLS.
“We don’t have to bring in a name DP that’s possibly a little bit older, that’s possibly on the downward slope of their career, to sell tickets because of name recognition,” Wilkinson said in a recent phone conversation. “We hope the players we’re signing will come into Portland and reinforce what they are and what they represent and hopefully create a bigger name for themselves.”
Most importantly, Wilkinson hopes they come in and help the team produce results on the field.
Wilkinson said it is exactly what happened with Valeri, an Argentine who came to the Rose City without the biggest name but burst onto the scene to win the MLS Newcomer of the Year award last year. He noted that to a certain extent, the same can be said of defensive midfielder Diego Chara, who was signed out of Colombia as a DP but no longer qualifies as such because his initial acquisition costs are now off the books.
Players like Adi, a 23-year-old Nigerian who first came to the Timbers on a short-term loan from FC Copenhagen, and Ridgewell, a Premier League mainstay, do not necessarily light up a marquee. But Wilkinson and Porter believe their contribution to the group will give the club’s impassioned fan base what they ultimately flock to Providence Park to see: wins.
“I don’t think we necessarily had it in our minds that we were going to spend DP money,” Porter said, of the Ridgewell signing after a recent training session. “We needed that position. We weren’t just going to go after a DP just because we needed a name; we just needed a good player.”
Since joining the team in mid-May, the impressive Adi has filled a need for a target forward, scoring four goals and recording two assists in just five starts. At 6-foot-4, he is a threat as a target for set pieces and crosses, and his hold-up play has helped the team’s dangerous on-ball attackers such as Valeri and Darlington Nagbe.
The signing of Ridgewell is intended to shore up one of the league’s worst defenses. Porter said Ridgewell is mobile, good in the air, a good man-marker and, perhaps most importantly, has been holding his own against some of the planet's best attackers for 10 years in the English Premier League.
“He’s in the prime of his career as a defender, and he’s been playing game in and game out in the top league in the world going against many of the top attackers in the world,” Porter said. “So that’s why you have to pay a little bit more to get him.”
Porter said one of the things that sold him on Ridgewell was watching his West Brom side go up against Liverpool as the Premier League season drew to a close. In the Feb. 2 game, Ridgewell led his team to a 1-1 draw against the likes of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.
“He’s managing players like that for a 90-minute game, and he’s playing against all these guys game in and game out, and he’s in 1-v-1 situations,” Porter said.
The Timbers brain trust contend that as MLS continues to spend money to add talent on the offensive side of the ball, eventually teams will have to do the same on the other side to manage those attackers.
“As you start to see better players in this league, better attacking players more specifically, you have to have something to counter that,” Wilkinson said. “So I think it will be a trend where teams start to invest a little bit more in their back line.”
Another aspect of signing a Designated Player is that player's effect on the locker room dynamic. Portland had the luxury of seeing what Adi brings to the table in that regard over last two months. With Ridgewell, Porter spent the day with him in Portland during a sort of “recruiting trip” and said he is a player who is “humble” and eager for a new challenge after “grinding” with WBA for English Premier League survival.
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“If you get the wrong type of guy or they don’t have the character or think they’re better than the other players or not a good pro, it can turn into a bad situation,” Porter said. “If you don’t get the right type of guy, then the players might resent that because they are making more money.”
In a club culture where every player is treated equally, from the highest-paid player to a new pro making the league minimum, Wilkinson said any player they bring in has to play a role on the field and off it.
“We have the luxury of doing what’s right for the group on the field, and hopefully what’s right in getting points and winning games,” Wilkinson said.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.