Portland Timbers’ new backline pieces coming together to strengthen defense

PORTLAND, Ore. – When Portland Timbers fans say hello to their team again Sunday with the start of the Simple Invitational preseason tournament at Providence Park (Feb. 22-28, TICKETS, Webstream at Timbers.com) – their first game action in the Rose City since last season – they’ll see plenty of familiar faces.

There will be, however, some new players on the field – in very important positions.

Portland brought in longtime Real Salt Lake center back Nat Borchers and Ghanaian international goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, while parting ways with veteran ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts, center back Pa Modou Kah and left back Michael Harrington.

Needless to say, integrating two new players in the back is one of the main goals for the Timbers this preseason.

They join a group that includes outside backs Jorge Villafaña and Alvas Powell who established starting roles with the Timbers last season along with Portland center back Liam Ridgewell who just completed a short-term loan with Championship side Wigan FC.

“Very seamless,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said of the integration of Borchers and Kwarasey. “They’re good professionals, they’re experienced.”

Borchers and Kwarasey joined the team at the start of preseason camp and saw action with the starting group in both preseason games – a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo and a scoreless draw with San Jose Earthquakes – in Tucson, Ariz.

"They came in and adjusted really fast," Villafana said of Borchers and Kwarasey. "They’re great players. They’re players who are going to help the team improve and take the team to a new level." 

Borchers lined up next to Argentine Norberto Paparatto, who finished last season as a starter, but the former RSL man will likely usher in his partnership with Ridgewell in Portland’s tournament opener Sunday against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“As a new player, I think there was already a lot of chemistry here,” Borchers said. “I think, for one, you’ve got a team with an identity and a style of play and a good group already, a foundation. So coming in, you could already see a lot of those connections and relationships established. And I think that hopefully with Liam coming back… we can get better.”

Getting on the same page will be especially important when taking into account Portland’s slow start to the 2014 season – five points from their first eight games. Porter said their camp in Arizona was a good first step – and not only for the progress made on the field.

“As much as you’re trying to get them plugged in to training, soccer-wise plugged in, for me it’s just as important for them to feel comfortable with the group off the field,” Porter said. “They’ve had that opportunity now to hang out and for them to get to know our guys and for our guys to get to know them. I thought that was huge.”

One reason for optimism is the way the defense played late last season. After Ridgewell’s signing in late June, the Timbers recorded six clean sheets in 15 games, including their last three. That turnaround also correlated with the emergence of Villafaña at left back and Powell at right back.

“I don’t see why not,” Ridgewell said when asked if that momentum can carry over. “We had a real solid base last year, especially toward the end. We got a lot of clean sheets, and hopefully we can readjust that going into the new season.”

And rather than viewing the changes as a major overhaul, Porter said it was more a matter of finally getting all the pieces right that fit into his style of play. Porter cited the skill on the ball of Borchers and Ridgewell, and even Kwarasey, in addition to Villafana’s and Powell’s ability to get up and down the wing as giving his group a better ability to build from the back.

And, of course, he’s happy with their ability to achieve their No. 1 objective: play defense.

“That’s been an area of focus of us, and you’ve seen that in the games,” Porter said, noting they allowed just one goal in two preseason games. “We’ve never had problems scoring goals, so not worried about that … but we really wanted to make sure our organization and discipline defensively was there, and I think you saw that.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.