DEFENSIVE DIFFERENCE EASY TO SEE
August is a month when flashy midseason additions can change the outcome of an MLS season. Exhibit A is Nicolas Lodeiro, who last season sparked Seattle's unexpected surge to the championship.
The Portland Timbers did not make any splashy singings during this midseason transaction period — though the arrival of defender Larrys Mabiala has been significant.
But the Timbers just might get a better boost than teams get from adding talent in midseason.
If Liam Ridgewell can stay healthy — and indications were he made it through Sunday's 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy without another injury — it would be better than adding a splashy newcomer given Ridgewell's MLS experience and strong personality.
"We are a different team with 'Ridgy' in the lineup. If you can't see that, you are blind," coach Caleb Porter says, pointing to Ridgewell's leadership and his play on the ball in the middle of the defense.
Against L.A., Ridgewell played for the first time since June 10 and for the first time alongside Mabiala. Early indications are — Ridgewell and Mabiala had one week of practices side by side entering Sunday's match — it can be the kind pairing that anchors all consistent defenses.
"I think they are going to be a very good pairing," Porter says. "Quietly, Mabiala's had a really good run of games. He makes a lot of plays that go unnoticed — defensive plays where he steps and tackles and heads balls in the air. That's what we wanted out of him."
Mabiala, Ridgewell says, is "very athletic and good on the ball and he likes to talk as well, so that's great."
After missing the last eight games with the quad injury that cost him six games early in the season, it was understandably troubling to his teammates and fans when Ridgewell sat down in stoppage time and asked to be replaced.
But following the game on Sunday, Ridgewell was all smiles talking about scoring the Timbers' first goal after shedding the mark of Daniel Steres to nod home a corner kick in the fifth minute. He said fatigue caught up with him at the end of his first 90 minutes in almost two months.
"The heat was starting to get to me," he said. "Obviously, I wanted to make sure I felt all right for training this week and the game next week."
Fanendo Adi also left early, grabbing the back of his leg and asking for a substitute after making the run and back-heel pass that Alvas Powell turned into the Timbers' third goal.
Porter said following the match that he was hopeful that Adi and Ridgewell were only being careful by asking out.
The coach was understandably pleased to have all of his first-choice players available for the first time since ... maybe early 2016.
"It was great. I'm sure people will say, 'Wow, they are back playing the way they are (capable of) playing, what's the changed?' We're healthy," Porter says.
In addition to Ridgewell's return and the growing comfort level of Mabiala in his fourth start, the Timbers also had Gold Cup participants Darlington Nagbe, David Guzman, Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks.
"We're a different team with Nagbe in the lineup. We're a different team with Guzmán and (Diego) Chara paired together," Porter says.
The Timbers remained relevant despite some extended absences by "grinding out results."
But they have not been able to consistently dictate the game.
"We can play more dominantly and more aggressively when we have all our pieces together and that showed for most of the first half and for periods in the second half" against the Galaxy, Porter says.
It helps, too, that some of those pieces seem to have grown in confidence upon their return. Powell is one example. After playing almost every minute of Jamaica's run to the Gold Cup championship match, Powell says he was anxious to get back to work in Portland.
"I played against a lot of good players. I learned a lot from them, and I'm coming back here with a lot of confidence," Powell says.
That showed on his goal. He made a run into space and shouted to alert Adi of his presence. Then he closed his eyes and fired from near the right corner of the six-yard box. The ball whipped just inside the far post for Powell's third career goal.
It was only the sixth time in 24 games this season that the Timbers have held a lead of more than one goal — and two of those happened in March.
With 10 games left — beginning with a trip to Toronto next weekend to challenge the team with the best record in the league — the Timbers won't have a great margin for error. But the reunion of their top-choice guys gives Portland a chance to make a late-season splash.