Portland Timbers rely on experience, leadership of Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers in central defense

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The yin and yang of Portland Timbers center backs Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers has been the topic of much discussion since the 2015 MLS season kicked off.

Ridgewell was a Premier League mainstay before coming to Portland midway through the 2014 season. Borchers was an MLS Cup Playoffs participant in each of his seven years with Real Salt Lake – which includes winning the 2009 title and advancing to the 2013 final, knocking out the Timbers in that conference championship – before an offseason trade brought him to the Rose City.

That’s on the field.

Off the field, Borchers’ beard and Ridgewell’s urban style make them both perfect for the famously cool city in which they ply their trade.

In their first season together, they led one of the league’s toughest defenses. And now that the Timbers are in the Western Conference Championship for the second time in the past three seasons, with the first leg against FC Dallas set to kick off Sunday at Providence Park (7:30 pm ET, FS1/FOX Deportes in US, TSN5 in Canada), the experience between the two veterans is sure to play an even bigger role in the team’s fate.

“That was part of the reason we brought in Ridgewell last year in the summer transfer [window],” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said earlier this week in a media conference call. “We felt we needed a top-level central defender that had experience playing against top level attackers.”

After narrowly missing out on the playoffs last year, in came Borchers.

“While Ridgewell has experience playing at the top level in the Premier League for many years, we thought it was important to have someone next to him that has experience in MLS that has been in the trenches, who knows the attacking players in the league inside and out,” Porter said of their thinking behind the Borchers acquisition.

And while Borchers has plenty of MLS playoff experience, Ridgewell isn’t exactly a stranger to cup competitions. Ridgewell was a starting defender on the Birmingham City side that made a surprise run to the 2010-11 Football League Cup title, upsetting Arsenal in the final. He said he’s drawing on a lot of that experience for his first playoff run.

“It’s a little bit different, but for myself personally you look at the cup runs, and that’s how I try to take these playoffs,” Ridgewell said Saturday after the team’s final training session of the week at the team facility. “Obviously it’s the first time I’ve ever been in it, so I just look to it as a cup competition and just try to get to the final. It’s two legs in the semis back home in the League Cup, so I’m just trying to draw on experience like that and try to keep our heads right and trying to get the results in the right games to make sure we get through to the final.”

It’s their combined experience that has become their biggest attribute, with neither player possessing overwhelming size or athleticism. Porter said the composure, leadership and communication of the two is key when it comes to maintaining shape – especially in high-pressure situations as Portland has allowed just two goals, both in their Knockout Round victory over Sporting Kansas City, in their three playoff games.

“I think it’s just that balance, being able to make sure that when we do go forward we have numbers back,” Borchers said. “That’s just something we’re going to have to manage in the back and communicate with our guys because it’s easy to get caught up in the attack and not worry about the defending part of the game.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.