BEAVERTON, Ore. – The blizzard that hit Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commence City, Colorado, on Saturday ensconced the Portland Timbers’ season opener in analytical confusion, leaving little to be learned from a 3-3 draw played under aberrational conditions.
But while that confusion may keep new questions from being answered about the team’s 2019 prospects, it also did nothing to provide answers to lingering doubts. And with the team’s only starting-lineup change from the 2018 MLS Cup final occurring in defense, the “3” under “Rapids” on the DSG Park scoreboard still casts the defense as a work in progress.
“It just takes time,” right back Zarek Valentin told Talk Timbers for Wednesday night’s show, having been asked about losing the communication of former Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell. The England native returned to his home country this offseason, joining Hull City after helping the Timbers to a second final in four seasons.
“It’s one of these things where mistakes happen, but there’s going to be a lot more positivity than negativity in terms of those relationships and the way they develop themselves,” Valentin explained.
Valentin was one of the two consistent presences along Portland’s defense last year, shifting from left to right back midseason after the return of U.S. international Jorge Villafaña. Center back Larrys Mabiala proved a backline stalwart, too, with the France-born defender combining with Valentin to appear in 63 of a possible 68 games last season.
Mabiala and Valentin have often cited as the players mostly likely to augment the loss of Ridgewell’s communication, a role the fullback likens more to an aspiration than an obligation.
“It’s not necessarily as much me saying, ‘Oh, I need to do this,’” he explained, about being more vocal on the field. “It’s more a want and a desire, and also, when you get into [more interactions with teammates], you feel more comfortable, and you develop good relationships, you can have an honest conversation.
“If I’m not doing well enough, people feel comfortable enough to tell me that, and I think I can pass that along to others, as well.”
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Those relationships won’t be new to Valentin, who used his on-field leadership to become a linchpin at two different positions, at different times, last season. The most vociferous Timber on the field for much of last year – particularly in the season’s middle months, when fitness issues kept Ridgewell from the field – Valentin eventually posted career highs in minutes played (2,721), appearances (32) and starts (31). His leadership and tactical acumen were major reasons why, even after the return of Villafaña, Valentin maintained a starting role.
There is a difference, however, between the communication you can provide from a fullback’s position and what’s needed in central defense, when partnerships often require one player to assert the more vocal role. Though it’s unclear how those relationships will play out for the Timbers over the course of 2019, Valentin again sees it as a function of time.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to each other,” Valentin says, when asked for his perspective from the flank. “Obviously, Julio (Cascante) and Larrys have played more minutes with each other,” this season, he says, alluding to the duo who started in Colorado.
“Bill (Tuiloma),” a former Olympique Marseille player, “and Larrys, their French connection, didn’t play an incredible amount of games together last year. When Bill stepped in in the playoffs, it was with Ridgy, because Larrys got the red card or picked up a knock.
“Things along those lines just have to develop. It’s going to take time. I don’t think we’re far off by any means. I don’t think it’s completely a terrible level. It’s a matter of time and having these things develop.”
And while as those things improve, it will be important to maintain perspective, according to Valentin. Even amid last weekend’s disappointment, there were still things to build on.
“In the grand scheme, yes, we are upset that we dropped points,” he admits, “but in the grand scheme, it’s good that we got points. And ultimately, if we play that way, we’re going to have a lot more good results than bad results.”