PORTLAND, Ore. – The goals have come for the Portland Timbers – they’ve come virtually all season.
What’s lagged behind is their defense, which came into Saturday night’s matchup against Chivas USA as the third worst in MLS with 38 goals allowed in 22 games.
That changed at least for a night in Portland’s 2-0 victory over the Goats at Providence Park, in what Timbers head coach Caleb Porter called the “most complete defensive performance” of the season.
“We talked about that all week,” Porter said in his postgame comments. “… We’ve been scoring goals, we haven’t been defending well enough. And when I say defending well enough, that’s as a team. And I thought in the first half especially, and in the second half the way we kind of shut things down, it was our most complete defensive performance.”
It was just their second clean sheet of the season, with the other also coming against Chivas USA, in a 2-0 win on May 28.
What was the catalyst Saturday night? Porter said it was the performance of newly-acquired Designed Player Liam Ridgewell in central defense that helped limit Chivas USA to nine shots and just one on goal.
“I thought Liam Ridgewell was an absolute animal,” Porter said. “A lot of the little plays he made will get lost, but they don’t get lost on me. He won I don’t how many headers and crosses he cut out;. He showed his quality.”
The English Premier League veteran, making just his fourth start in a Timbers shirt and fresh off an appearance in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game, said the key was limiting Chivas’ wingers from hitting crosses in to forward Erick “Cubo” Torres, who is tied for second in the Golden Boot standings with 14 goals.
“We talked about before the game, that they like to get wide and get the early ball in and flow off second balls,” Ridgewell said. “And that’s one of the things we tried to look out for and identify, and I thought [outside backs] Danny [O’Rourke] and Mikey [Harrington] did a good job of that. We just tried to pop anything out that came in.”
Porter said Ridgewell’s leadership qualities have already manifested, perhaps surprising considering Portland’s backline has been in flux nearly all season. After starting his first three games alongside O’Rourke with Jack Jewsbury and Harrington on the outside, Ridgewell was paired with Norberto Paparatto, who made his first appearance since June 7, in central defense.
Ridgewell has yet to see time with usual center back starter Pa Modou Kah, who is fighting Achilles tendonitis.
“We’ve been working really hard since I’ve been here, and I think the boys have been doing it all season before I got here,” Ridgewell said. “So I think it’s just getting it together. Over the past month and month and a half we’ve just gotten stronger.”
And with goals from Diego Valeri - who scored in his fourth straight game - and Rodney Wallace - who opened his 2014 account following his return from offseason knee surgery two months ago - the Timbers are tied with FC Dallas for the most goals in the league with 38, and are now tied for the fifth and final MLS Cup Playoff spot in the Western Conference after winning three of their last four games.
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And Porter doesn’t expect the offensive pace to subside one bit.
“We fell short at times because we gave up goals,” Porter said. “Right now we’re getting balance. I thought the entire back four – even though Liam stood out – I thought the entire back four were very good. I thought they were tight; they looked like a unit.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.