Liam Ridgewell, MLS Cup training, 12.3.18

BEAVERTON, Ore. – In some ways, 2018 is ending like every other year for Liam Ridgewell in Portland. He’s at the heart of the Timbers’ back line, proving to be the team’s best and most influential defender, and providing the leadership Portland management sought when they lured him from England in the summer of 2014.

“When I came here … they said we want to win an MLS Cup,” Ridgewell, a league champion in 2015, remembers. Having just finished training, the 34-year-old defender is five days short of his second MLS Cup final.

“That was my same ambition,” he says, “to come here and win and make this team into an organization that wins stuff. Not just competing. Not just making playoffs. But winning. Winning Cups.”

Cups, plural, is what Ridgewell will be shooting for on Sunday, where he is likely to start in the same position he occupied three years ago in Columbus, Ohio. Back then, at left-center back, he was the team’s most important defender as Portland claimed the star that currently sits above their crest. Against long odds this season – tasked with toppling a second-year juggernaut, Atlanta United FC on Saturday (5pm PT, FOX) – the former Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion defender will try to double his MLS trophy haul.

“I feel like we’ve been counted out every single game, haven’t we?” he said, throwing the media’s question about Portland’s underdog status back at them. On Monday, only one of seven polled experts at picked the Timbers to defeat Atlanta, who finished second in the race for 2018’s Supporters’ Shield.

“I don’t think any person thought that we might win – any stats or whatever people might have been talking about – except for ourselves, obviously.

“So, everyone’s put it on Atlanta to win at home, and they’ve had a great season, and this and that. That don’t make a difference when it comes to the playoffs, and it certainly don’t make a difference when it comes to the final.”

There was a point earlier this year, now long passed, where Ridgewell’s personal story took on an underdog’s tone of its own, one that wouldn’t have been so remarkable were it not for the automatic presence he’d been in the team’s lineup when healthy since his arrival. But the arrival of new head coach Giovanni Savarese, coupled with the new depth in the team’s squad, left his place in Portland’s XI up for grabs.

“It doesn't matter,” Ridgewell says, about those spring and summer challenges, while still acknowledging what could have been.

“This season could have gone a different way, and I might not have been standing here, talking to everybody, playing in the MLS Cup final,” he concedes. “But for myself … it’s always nice to prove people wrong and prove that you should be in there playing, and that’s what I’ve done. Kept on training. Kept working hard. It’s been a pleasure to get a team to an MLS Cup final.”

Over the last two months, Ridgewell’s performance has transcended merely training and hard work. All season, the Timbers’ defense has performed better when he’s in the team, and during those games he’s coupled in central defense with Larrys Mabiala, the Timbers have started a duo that’s performed like Major League Soccer elites. While Mabiala is certainly a part of that, the contrast in Portland’s performance with and without Ridgewell has been striking, providing an example of the leadership he brings to the field.

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“It’s not just leading [the defense],” he explains. “It’s being able to help people out. It’s being able to help the team out, to try and guide them and try and teach them, and give my experience to the team.

“That’s what I came here for, four years ago. That’s what I mean to be doing.”

What he’s doing has been evident throughout the postseason, most obviously in how he’s organized the team’s offside trap. The early whistles he helped draw on Seattle Sounders FC’s relentless striker, Raúl Ruidíaz, played a part in blunting the Timbers’ rivals’ early second-semifinal-leg charge. On Thursday in Kansas City, Kansas, Sporting striker Diego Rubio was subjected to the same frustration. Ridgewell’s mastery of his defense’s trap has played a major part in where his team is, now.

“Ridgy’s amazing, man,” goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said, when asked about what the veteran defender brings to the team. “He’s truly one of the best centerbacks I’ve ever seen.

“Just the way that he knows the game, and the way that he organizes the back line, in terms of when to step and where different people should be in different moments, you can tell that he sees the game at a higher level. To have someone like that in front of me, it kind of limits the organizing that I have to do, so I can focus more on myself. Having Ridgy back there, it’s awesome.”

That level has continued into the postseason where, despite the increased level of competition, the Timbers are only allowing 1.13 goals per 90 minutes – 25 percent better than their regular-season mark. Counting only the time Portland has played with 11 men on the field, the team’s defensive record gets even better. The Timbers’ flat 1.00 goals per 90 would have been second-best in Major League Soccer’s regular season.

Fitness has occasionally sidelined Ridgewell, this season, and in the transition from old coach to new, 2018 may have come with new challenges. But like the team he’s led for over four years, Ridgewell has persevered. Now, on the brink of a second Cup final, the man who has been so crucial since his 2014 arrival remains indispensable.

“You might not get another chance to go and win anything in your career,” he says, “so why not go at it with both hands and go and win it in Atlanta?”

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