ATLANTA – The high-scoring, big-spending, attendance-record-breaking, MLS Cup-hosting phenomenon that is Atlanta United has drawn plenty of media attention in the run-up to Saturday’s championship clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS), which to some eyes has left the Portland Timbers in the shade.
Go right ahead, Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell playfully urged reporters at Thursday’s training session.
“Everyone talks about Atlanta, you know. We’re happy with that, keep on talking,” said the veteran English center back with a wry grin. “Everyone’s talked about every other team that we’ve played against this season, really. It’s the Atlanta show come Saturday.
“We’ll take the after-party show, that’s fine.”
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Ridgewell uttered his remarks one day after ATLUTD owner Arthur Blank revealed that plans for a Five Stripes victory parade are already in the works, perhaps providing some bulletin-board material for the underdogs from Portland. But he contended that the waves of adoring coverage of Atlanta’s young stars and fearsome attack are just par for the course in modern MLS.
“I think that’s the league in general. Everyone talks about the attacking style, everyone likes to see goals,” said Ridgewell. “I don’t, I’m the opposite. I like to see not a lot of goals, and clean sheets and stuff like that. But I think that’s how I suppose the league gets recognition, from styles coming in, and that’s where the [Designated Player] money’s spent, on attacking players. I’d like to see a few center halves, but that’s just the way the league goes.”
The Timbers have navigated a winding road to MLS Cup in the first season under head coach Giovanni Savarese, and “Ridgy” himself has walked a similar path under the new boss. He was dropped from the starting lineup after subpar performances as Portland opened the season with two losses – “we needed to change something,” Savarese said at the time – and floated in and out of the XI throughout the campaign due to injuries and coach’s decisions.
With the Londoner turning 34 over the summer, some Timbers fans reckoned that their star defender’s run in the Rose City was approaching its end. Ridgewell, a key cog in Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup run and a favorite of former coach Caleb Porter, admitted on Thursday that it took some time for him and Savarese to reach an understanding.
“We had loads of sitdowns, loads of sitdowns. Loads of time to hash stuff out,” he said. “Look, we’re both professionals, we’re both adults. Gio’s been around it a long time, so has myself, and things went one way and then went another. And that’s football: it changes. So Gio was here to manage a team and I was here to play football, and thankfully it turned out the way it has done so far.”
But Ridgewell found his form down the stretch and the backline generally prospered as a result. He’s played every single minute of the postseason so far, and looks likely to start again on Saturday. Timbers.com’s Richard Farley recently detailed how influential he’s become again, coordinating the defense with vocal communication and the savvy eye of a 16-year pro.
Now he sees parallels to the tightly-knit 2015 squad that knocked off Columbus Crew SC in their own stadium to hoist the club’s first league championship trophy, just as they hope to do to Atlanta.
“The team’s evolved. I think we’re more like the ‘15 team than people talk about,” said Ridgewell. “We’ve worked very hard for each other now and worked very hard as a team. And that relates to the’15 team, that’s what we were like. Hopefully we can relate to that and go and win it as well.”