It's a big day for Ridgewell, peaking Timbers
KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS
The lads in the locker room were ribbing the Brit Sunday at Providence Park.
"'Bout time you got on the scoreboard," Nat Borchers cracked.
Liam Ridgewell took the kidding in stride. After all, 36 games is a long time to wait for his first goal of the season.
"All year, it's been annoying not to get one," said the Timbers' captain, who tallied the game's first goal in a Major League Soccer Western Conference Championship Series 3-1 first-leg victory over FC Dallas to move them within one last step of MLS Cup 2015. "One (goal) is a start, if I can put a couple more in going into the final. It was nice to finally get one."
Ridgewell waited until his final home game of the season to put the biscuit in the basket, but a big one it was. The 31-year-old defender walked in after a corner kick and popped a shot past Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez in the 23rd minute for the game's first goal.
"No chance the 'keeper was going to stop that one from getting in there," Ridgewell said with a grin. "It was going in there no matter what. It has been a frustrating year for me with goals. I'm glad I could contribute in that way."
Ridgewell, of course, contributes in many ways. Since joining the Timbers in July 2014 after more than a decade as a British Premier League mainstay, Ridgewell has provided leadership and stability at the back end. Such is coach Caleb Porter's respect for Ridgewell that he made him captain for the majority of games this season.
"That's a no-brainer," said Borchers, a partner of Ridgewell in defense for the Timbers. "He is such a natural leader. If we could clone three or four of him, we'd love to have more Liams on the team."
The oft-zany MLS rules call for two-game, accumulative-goal series leading up to the MLS Cup. An even odder twist: If a home team can get a scoreless draw in the series opener, it holds an advantage in the second game on the road, knowing it can advance not just by winning but by scoring at least one goal in a tie.
It would have made some sense, then, for the Timbers to have played conservatively Sunday at Providence Park. That wasn't the case, in part because of Ridgewell and Borchers.
"Our plan was to attack," Porter said. "I knew we could do that because of how organized we are in the back end. We felt we needed to capitalize on our home game and score goals, and we did."
Porter paid tribute to his 30-somethings in defense Sunday -- Ridgewell, Borchers (34) and Jack Jewsbury (34). Borchers scored the final goal in the 90th-plus minute, meaning defenders provided two-thirds of the offense.
"They're battle-tested," the Timbers coach said. "We thought going into the series that would be a strength. Dallas is youthful and exciting, but we put in a few grizzly vets. Those three guys in the back part of our team really did a nice job."
Ridgewell and Borchers -- who came to Portland this season from Real Salt Lake -- have developed a chemistry through an MLS campaign that seemingly never ends, especially if a team can keep it going in the playoffs.
"Me and Nat playing together so much, you get to know each other," Ridgewell said. "You get to be able to read each other."
Borchers said the older chaps aren't taking for granted their success with the Timbers at such an advanced age.
"You feel pretty fortunate every day to be able to play professional soccer when you're our age," he said. "You're buoyed by the energy in the locker room. We have so many good young guys on this team. We're all competitors. The day-to-day stuff is really fun for us."
I'm doing my best to convey post-game Ridgewell's quotes in context. He speaks with what I believe would be called a Cockney accent, and a Yank has to concentrate hard to understand exactly what he is saying at times.
It's clear, though, that Ridgewell is very much enjoying his time in Portland, where a large contingent of fans live and die with the local side.
"Wherever you go, it's loud," he said. "You can't walk down the street without someone shouting at you. It's great. It shows how well we're doing.
"(The fans) were fantastic. They're great every week, but (today), they were really electric. Might have scared Dallas off a little bit. We might have to buy a few plane tickets for a few of them to get out to Dallas."
Ridgewell is talking about next Sunday's second leg of the series at Frisco, Texas.
"It's only half the job done," he said. "We go down to their place now, where I'm sure they'll be into the attack a little bit more."
The hope is that Ridgewell will be healthy enough to play. He left Sunday's game in the 61st minute with a calf injury that has bothered him at times since suffering a broken leg in England in 2009.
"Liam had a tight calf muscle a couple of days ago, but it felt good before the game," Porter said. "Then it flared up."
Porter was asked if Ridgewell -- who hasn't missed a game all season -- will be fit enough to play the second leg of the series.
"I hope so," Porter said. "I would expect so. He has had a little bit of calf issues at times, a little bit of tightness, but he's pretty good at managing out. Hopefully our medical team will have him running next week."
Ridgewell said the fans can count on it.
"It's been a bit of an ongoing thing, but it will be fine," he said. "I'll play even if I have to strap it up and take as many tablets as I have to. It's just a bit tight. I'll have to try to manage it and not make it any worse."
Ridgewell's bigger battle is a family thing. While he is in Portland, his children -- aged 10 and 7 -- are with his former wife in Birmingham, England.
"The kids aren't here, but when I blank that out and concentrate on what I'm doing, I feel very comfortable with it," he said. "The people have been so good to me, they've helped me adjust to it."
The children have been to Portland four times during Ridgewell's year and a half with the Timbers. They have enjoyed spending time at his spread in Lake Oswego.
"They love it," he said. "They get to get out to the lake and enjoy it. I'm sure they'd love to be here full-time, but they need to with their mom. One of those things."
When I offered that this must be difficult for him, Ridgewell nodded.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," he said. "I'm OK. It's just when I get to the (Portland) airport and have to send them back home, watching the kids cry. I didn't realize how hard it was going to be, but sometimes you have to do things.
"Every Monday morning, they're asking, 'Are you coming home?' I say, 'No, we won again, so I'm staying.' I'm hoping maybe I can bring them back over for the final if we get there."
As I exited Providence Park for the parking lot Sunday night, I watched Ridgewell leave the stadium with a teammate, limping noticeably. Perhaps he will be ready to go next Sunday. Seems the man is a rock, for his teammates and for his kids.