For Portland Timbers' Liam Ridgewell, a continental change and a new challenge

PORTLAND, Ore. – It had been a long season for Liam Ridgewell, and he was looking to blow off a little steam.

The 11-year English Premier League veteran defender was in Las Vegas with six of his friends in July, trying hard to shake off a disappointing season with English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion. While soaking up some sun at a pool party at the swanky Encore Beach Club on the Strip, Ridgewell happened to check his phone.

The message from his agent was simple: “Liam, call me ASAP.”

“It’s my first day in Vegas and he says, ‘Portland has come in for you,’” Ridgewell says. “I was like, ‘Can I enjoy Vegas first before I sort all that out?’”

What transpired over the next few weeks resulted in Ridgewell becoming one of just four true defensive players ever to sign a Designated Player contract in Major League Soccer, and the beginning of a new career just when he needed a change.

And while he came on board just two days after Portland also inked Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi to a DP contract, it was Ridgewell who was tasked with arguably the biggest challenge in helping save the Timbers’ season.

Until Ridgewell’s signing, the Timbers defense had been going through a challening campaign in 2014, ranking last or near the bottom of the league for the first half of the season.

The team’s struggles came to a head on June 11 against FC Dallas, when the Timbers gave up two goals in the first half before a frenetic offensive onslaught after halftime salvaged the point.

They set a club record with 30 shots in the game, more proof that their offense wasn’t the problem. But the defense was killing them.

“It was embarrassing, it was dismal defending,” Portland head coach Caleb Porter said after the game. “But that will be corrected, no doubt about it.”

Few people knew that Porter was quietly referring to one man sitting in the stands at Providence Park that night, a mainstay of the EPL who could have easily maintained that path to the dying days of his career, but who was drawn to a new league, a new club and a new challenge.

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The youngest of three boys growing up in Bexleyheath, England, Ridgewell was surrounded by soccer from an early age. The neighborhood where he grew up, he says, was the kind where “you turn a street corner and there’s a football coming at your windscreen as you’re driving along.”

His father, Bob, a graphic designer by day but a soccer player at night and on weekends in amateur leagues, coached the teams for Ridgewell’s older brothers. Ridgewell, a forward back then, was smaller than the other children, so his father put him on the wing so that he would stay out of trouble and avoid getting hurt by the older boys.

One day, Ridgewell scored on an overhead kick against a goalkeeper who Bob said was on trial at Queens Park Rangers, Ridgewell’s hometown team growing up. That’s when Bob knew his son was something special.

“He could always hold his own against kids five years older than him,” Bob says. “He’s always been feisty on the pitch; he’s always been a leader on the pitch.”

Liam Ridgewell first made his name in the EPL with Aston Villa, and spent five seasons with the club. (REUTERS)

Says Ridgewell: “You have to try to stand up to them. They kick you about and bully you a little bit. … So it’s an upbringing that stands you in good stead and makes you a little bit older and a little bit more of a man and ready to be kicked up in the air as well.”

As a 14-year-old in the West Ham system, Ridgewell was invited to attend a Manchester United youth camp, which allowed him to meet legends David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson. But Ridgewell was still recovering from a stress fracture in his leg that affected his performance, and he ended up continuing his youth career with Aston Villa, where he made his senior team debut in 2002.

After five years with Villa, Ridgewell made the move to Birmingham City, becoming the first player to switch sides in the Second City derby since 1984, akin to switching sides in the Timbers-Seattle Sounders Cascadia rivalry. He stayed there until 2012, when he made the move to West Brom at the age of 28.

Team success never came easy for any of Ridgewell’s clubs. They were often fighting off relegation and sometimes wobbled with unstable front offices. West Brom finished eighth in 2012-13 but sporting director Dan Ashworth left the club to work with the FA’s youth development system, and manager Steve Clark was sacked just months into the 2013-14 season.

And a number of high-profile offseason moves never paid off, leading to a tumultuous locker room and a 17th-place finish for the Baggies in the table last season.

“Last year, it became a terrible drudge,” Bob says. “In Portland, everyone seems to be facing in the same direction. At West Brom, everyone seems to be pulling in different directions, and it affected Liam. And coming here has increased his enthusiasm.”

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Even as the situation went sour with West Brom, Ridgewell never planned on leaving England. After two years with the team in West Midlands, Ridgewell wanted to move the 125 miles back to London and find a team there, where he would be closer to the Square Mile, where his parents and also two children live with their mother

MLS, he insists, was never on his radar.

“No, never,” Ridgewell says. “Obviously, coming up through the English Premier League you want to play there as long as possible, and you knew about the MLS obviously. But you mostly know about older players coming here or whatever.”

At his agent’s prodding, Ridgewell changed his travel plans and came directly to Portland from Las Vegas. He met with team owner Merritt Paulson, general manager Gavin Wilkinson and eventually Porter, who took Ridgewell back to his house in Lake Oswego.

There, over a couple of beers on Porter’s deck overlooking the lake in the evening sun, Porter sold Ridgewell on coming to the Rose City while also getting a read on what type of player and person he was.

“I really spent the day with the guy and we did our homework in judging what other people said about him in talking to other coaches,” Porter says. “We were very thorough with that because if you spend money on a guy and he’s not the right fit obviously there’s more risk.”

Ridgewell says he was impressed by Timbers head coach Caleb Porter and the front office's commitment to winning.  (USA TODAY Sports)

Porter said it didn’t take long to figure out that Ridgewell was their guy, and vice versa.

“It was a fantastic day, great weather, out on the lake,” Ridgewell says. “How could you turn that down, to be honest?”

But it wasn’t just the sun, lake and cold beer that sold Ridgewell. He was immediately drawn to the way the organization is run, the front office’s direction and commitment to winning and, of course, to Porter’s football mind. He says he’s never been around a manager quite like Porter.

“We just chatted football,” Ridgewell says. “It was nice and easy. I could tell his passion for the game and what he wanted to do with the Timbers. And he sold me, straight away. It was wanting to be involved with someone that had that much passion for the game and about his club. It was a really good chat, and I was done. From there I was done.”

Ridgewell returned home, talked it over with his parents and his two children, a son, 8, and daughter, 5, and decided Portland was the best move.

“We were shocked really,” Bob says. “We just got him back from the Midlands and we were hoping he’d come back to London and find a London club, but the next thing we know he’s halfway around the world.”

Could he ever imagine his son, who has spent nearly a lifetime in the Premier League, would be playing in MLS?

“Never in a million years,” he says. “Never in a million years.”

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Prior to Ridgwell’s signing, only three other true defenders had ever signed lucrative Designated Player contracts.

Two of those are American players raised by their clubs – the LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler – and the other is Rafa Marquez, the Mexican icon who enjoyed mixed success over three seasons with the New York Red Bulls.

The Timbers were linked to more expensive names than Ridgewell – former Manchester City man Joleon Lescott was among them – but for Porter, the hope is that less money is still money well spent.

“You want to get the guy that’s the right fit for the right value and you want to get the right type of person," he says. "You want to get somebody who is still hungry and motivated and someone who can still perform at a high level, and then just in looking all the other options we felt he was the perfect fit.”

It didn’t take long for Ridgewell to show just the type of player he was.

In his Timbers debut July 18 at home against the Colorado Rapids, he fell right into a leadership role as the most vocal player on the field, barking out orders to his teammates throughout the match.

“His leadership, his class, his quality, that’s what we brought him here for, to make everybody else better,” Timbers captain and holding midfielder Will Johnson says. “We know he’s a good player, anybody can tell you he’s a good player, but great players make the other three guys on the backline better as well.”

In Ridgewell’s seven games, Portland have a 1.6 goals against average – inflated mostly by a 4-2 loss Aug. 24 to rival Seattle and a 3-1 loss Aug. 2 to the Galaxy – and a solid shutout in last Saturday's 3-0 defeat of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Timbers are also back in a playoff position heading into a winnable matchup at home against San Jose on Sunday (1:45 pm PT; ESPN2).

Porter said he’s been a bit surprised with how fast Ridgewell has come along physically, considering he came straight to the Timbers in the midst of his offseason, but that tactically he’s right where he expected him to be.

He even scored a goal – after a coast-to-coast drive to give Portland a 1-1 away draw Aug. 16 against the New England Revolution.

“He’s a leader, so you don’t always know how that’s going to work in terms of how quickly guys are going to integrate,” Porter says. “But he’s been every bit the player we hoped he’d be.”

Ridgewell says his life in Portland so far has been "fantastic," and that he's committed to the Timbers. "“I’m all in,” he says. “I’m all in for sure." (USA TODAY Sports)

After playing in just three games, Porter selected Ridgewell to be on the AT&T MLS All-Star team in place of an injured Kyle Beckerman on Aug. 6. The move was mostly out of convenience in order to avoid bringing in a player from out of town on late notice, but it was still a nice bonus for Ridgewell to rub shoulders with league royalty such as Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry.

As Ridgewell was describing to the media how he learned of his All-Star selection, while on a ladder hanging drapes in his new house, Donovan walked by the scrum, slapped him on the back and said, “Welcome to the team.”

Ridgewell has also purchased a house overlooking Oswego Lake, and his parents and children spent a month in Portland to help him get settled in his new house and surroundings.

He certainly seems to be embracing life as a Portlander, regularly tweeting out pictures from relaxing evenings on his back deck. Ridgewell also recently completed his boater’s license and bought a speedboat.

“It’s been fantastic,” Ridgewell says. “To live on a lake and have a boat in London you have to live on the River Thames and be a multi-billionaire. I’m definitely not there, that’s for sure. … It’s easy to get involved with Portland.”

He says he’d love to bring his family over full-time and that turning Portland into one of the best franchises in MLS is something he’s dedicated to achieving.

“I’m all in,” he says. “I’m all in for sure. Like I said, if I’m going to come here I’m going to do it properly.”

Adds Bob, who’s watched his son’s life take yet another fateful turn with football: “He’s actually fallen in love with football again since he’s come here, which is fantastic for us. It’s fantastic for Liam.”

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