Solid first Timbers start behind him, Duvall knows "it’s a stepping stone" for improvement

Chris Duvall, Timbers vs. Nashville, 3.8.20

PORTLAND, Ore. – In some respects, Chris Duvall’s Sunday was unremarkable. He went to work, knew he would be in the starting lineup and played a game of soccer. He’s been doing that professionally for more than six years. Most days of his life, Duvall is playing some form of soccer.

That’s why, when teed up to talk about his start against Nashville SC – a game the Timbers won 1-0 – the Portland right back said “it’s not my first one,” playing off his 90-minute shift in green and gold as a matter of course. But Sunday’s start was surprising on two levels. In the days before kickoff, Jorge Moreira seemed destined to be Portland’s right back, but pain in the defender’s left knee forced him out of the lineup. Enter an opportunity for Duvall, one that would have been difficult to foresee seven months ago.

That’s when the Georgia-born 28-year-old was released by the Houston Dynamo, a decision that left him finishing his 2019 campaign in Oklahoma City, playing in the United Soccer League. For the first time in his career, the former New York Red Bull defender’s first-division tenure was on the brink. He needed to regroup.

“There are a couple of hours or realization of what’s actually happening and how this came to be,” Duvall said, of finding out about Houston’s decision, “and then immediately, within a couple of hours, you’re thinking what’s next. How do I get myself back in?”

Within that context, there is a danger of defining Duvall’s present as a comeback story, thus understating not only what he accomplished in the first years of his career, from 2014 through 2019, but exaggerating where he was last fall. The contrast between Sunday and October’s outlying moment is still pronounced, though. Last year, he finished his year in Phoenix, on the wrong side of a 3-1 result at the end of the Energy’s season. This year, he’s starting games in front of sellout crowds at Providence Park.

“I found out [Saturday] after training,” he said, of learning he’d be in Sunday’s lineup. “It’s not my first [start], so it’s just kind of the same thought process. I had to go through the scout, understand the player I’m playing against, understand our game plan and just focus on what’s happening next.””

There’s a debate implied in Duvall’s words, one that’s reflected by his straight-forward responses and centers around his body of work. Yes, he finished last season in the USL, but for his first three years out of Wake Forest, he was a valuable member of the Red Bulls, helping the team to a Supporters’ Shield in 2015. His play made him valuable enough to target in the expansion draft after the 2017 season, when Montreal traded a Costa Rican international, John Venegas, for his rights. Houston proved a poor fit for him, but even including his time with the Dynamo, Duvall has accumulated an MLS resume, one that remained defining when he arrived in Portland. 

His first shift with the Timbers proved as much. Like referees, defenders are sometimes at their best when they don’t pop, handling their more difficult tasks with enough ease to make them look simple. But after more than a week of Portland struggling against counterattacks – of players taking themselves out of position and exposing teammates left behind – Duvall was never caught out. There never came a point when you asked yourself, “Oh my God, what is Duvall doing?” Instead, he blended in. He played as part of the unit. He executed the plan put forth, and when you did stop to take notice, you noticed a player doing his job.

Not that he was satisfied with the performance. Just as Duvall wasn’t content with merely making a start, the newest Timber wasn’t happy with details. There was still room to improve.

“It definitely wasn’t perfect ...” he said of the defense’s performance, “but just to come home with the clean sheet is very important, and it’s a stepping stone to whatever happens next.”

In the wake of Saturday’s news that the Timbers had lost their starting right back, it was common to see lament about the team’s depth, especially at that part of the depth chart. The team had been down a right back since Zarek Valentin’s departure, saw Bill Tuiloma go down in preseason, and didn’t announce Duvall’s signing until shortly before the first game. With reason, there was an assumption that right back was a weak spot.

Duvall showed that may be wrong, giving his new home a reminder of the career he’s forged. He may not be the team’s planned starter, but during this career, he’s been a starter before. And throughout his first 90 minutes at Providence Park, he brought a starter’s quality to the field.