Liam Ridgewell's defensive impact noticed as Portland Timbers center back quietly rises to be one of the top in MLS

Liam Ridgewell, Timbers vs. NE, 6.6.15

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Evaluating a defender’s productivity often deals in metrics that aren’t as cut and dry as goals and assists.

There are stats like tackles, interceptions and clearances, sure, but even those numbers can be deceiving. So perhaps it best boils down to one thing: goals allowed.

And by that standard, Portland Timbers center back Liam Ridgewell could be considered one of the best in the MLS, having led the complete turnaround of a defense that early last season was one of the worst in the league.

After a stretch of three games in which the Timbers have allowed just one goal – a Sam Cronin volley from distance in a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids on May 30 – the Ridgewell-led defense in Portland has recorded 12 clean sheets and amassed a 14-8-8 record since his debut on July 18, 2014.

“I think Liam is one of the most underrated central defenders in the league,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said this week at the team’s training facility. “I don’t know what other coaches think or what other people think, but I know what I think. And I think he’s proven that in his time here, and the results speak for themselves in terms of the wins and clean sheets. Since he’s arrived we’ve really stabilized out backline, and he’s a big part of that. He’s a quality central defender.”

Timbers owner Merritt Paulson took to Twitter following Portland’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution last weekend – giving the club their first three-game winning streak since joining MLS in 2011 – to proclaim just that, offering the opinion that Ridgewell is the best center back in the league.

Considering the Designated Player contract the Timbers handed him to lure the Premier League veteran across the pond, that’s certainly what the club expects. Getting a clean sheet in more than a third of the games in which he’s played has been the payoff, with hardly the adjustment period that many foreign players experience upon first arriving in the league.

“I thought, ‘You know what, if I just go in there and play how I play and do as well as I know I can do then hopefully people will see that and respect that part of my game,’” Ridgewell told “So the main aspect for me was just to hit the ground running and perform how I needed to perform and try to show people it was worth bringing me in.”

And while Ridgewell may have needed little time to acclimate, there’s proof that he’s continuing to get better and better. In their current three-game hot streak, Portland have allowed 30 shots, including a season-low four against New England, who are tied for the third-highest scoring team in the league.

Ridgewell said it has a lot to do with the increasing familiarity of the entire backline. Along with Ridgewell, fellow center back Nat Borchers, right back Alvas Powell and left back Jorge Villafana have been grouped together for all but a few games.

“Every day in training, every game we play, we’re learning about each other more and more, and everyone is growing in confidence and experience as well,” Ridgewell said. “So I think it’s been a really good year for that. Alvas, Jorge, I’ve seen them grow, watching last year to now has been really good, and they look more and more confident. And that just gives me and Nat more confidence.”

The pairing of Borchers and Ridgewell, one carefully cultivated by Porter and the Timbers front office, is the heart of it all. Despite producing results in the second half of last season paired with Pa Modou Kah, a relative newcomer to the league as well, Porter felt the veteran presence of Borchers, a longtime Real Salt Lake defender who was acquired by Portland in the offseason, would bring about even more stability.

In an MLS Insider video earlier this season (watch above), Porter talked about how Ridgewell’s experience defending some of the world’s best attackers in the Premier League would help Borchers. Conversely, Borchers’ experience and knowledge of MLS would help Ridgewell.

Ridgewell said it’s played out exactly that way in his 14 games paired with Borchers.

“Obviously, Nat’s played in the league for a long, long time, and pairing up with him has been really good for me because some of the players I don’t know and some of the players I’m just learning about through video or basically from what I’ve seen,” Ridgewell said. “So Nat may give me a little bit of a tip or a little bit of an insight into a player, which is always helpful.”

So the question is, has Ridgewell become the best center back in the league? For Porter, it’s the fact that he sometimes goes unnoticed for having to rarely make the spectacular play, the goal-saving tackle or the athletically impressive header clearance that stands out most to him.

“A good central defender oftentimes doesn’t get noticed because they don’t make mistakes, and he’s one of those guys,” Porter said. “He doesn’t maybe always jump out as making a ton of plays, but he’s just a really solid central defender, positionally solid, good on the ball, and he makes a lot of little things look routine. … Which is good because we obviously brought him in to be a top-five central defender, and I think he’s shown that.”

Jack Jewsbury, who has played in front of the backline in the defensive midfield most of the season and is a veteran of 13 seasons in the league, has been impressed with Ridgewell.

“He ranks right up there with the best I’ve played with, for sure,” Jewsbury told “… He has every attribute you look for in a center back. And the transition he made coming into MLS, it seemed like he had played here for years. He’s a key guy within our team and a guy that’s really helped this team this past year.”

Ridgewell, obviously, wasn’t willing offer his thoughts on whether he’s the best, saying talk like that “will come back and bite you on the ass.” He did say he absolutely strives to be.

As for Paulson’s tweet, Ridgewell said the two “had a laugh” at training Wednesday about it.

“It’s great,” Ridgewell said of the team owner’s compliment. “I’ve never really had an owner like that before say stuff like that about me, so it’s really nice and it brings my confidence up even more. … Obviously that’s for other people to decide, but I try and make sure I compete there with the other center halves in the league or the other defenders in the league and try to show that I am.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for