PORTLAND, Ore. – If Caleb Porter’s not careful, he’ll lose his reputation as an attack-minded coach.
That’s how well his Portland Timbers are playing defense right now. Their scoreless draw Saturday against Real Salt Lake extended their club-record shutout streak to four games, 394 minutes, dating back to the final three matches of the 2014 season.
It’s a marked shift from the first five months of last season, when they were near the bottom of the league in goals conceded.
“I thought we looked extremely organized,” Porter said following Saturday’s game at Providence Park. “Our team defending was tremendous, so I’m real pleased with that. We’re going to draw a lot of points and find a way to win games if we do that.”
The shift is marked by several factors, starting with the arrival of English Premier League veteran center back Liam Ridgewell in mid-July on a Designated Player contract, and continuing with the emergence of outside backs Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafaña. This year, the Timbers kept a microscope on the defense, adding former Real Salt Lake center back Nat Borchers and Ghanaian international goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.
“There were a lot of little things that we did to correct the defensive side,” Porter said. “Personnel was a big part of it. Obviously when you have better players, guys that are focused and intelligent, that helps. But it’s also a team, and the defending has to start from the front as well.”
Porter said that buy-in from his front players has indeed improved.
Another big change has come from their defensive midfielders following the injury of captain Will Johnson, a more offensive-minded player, with a month to go last year. With Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara partnering over their final four games of 2014 and veteran Jack Jewsbury running with second-year pro George Fochive in Saturday’s opener, it’s created more of a defensive foundation in the midfield as Porter has opted to consistently play wide through the team's outside backs and wingers on the attack.
Add the ability of Ridgewell, Borchers and even Kwarasey to play the ball and maintain a high line, and it’s been very hard for teams to find space in the center of the park.
“Coming off the back end of last year, we just got back to basics and just had really quality defending more from the front and being really organized as a team,” Ridgewell said. “We’ve definitely worked a lot on it since I’ve come in and obviously added Nat as well. We’ve just tried to work on it day in and day out in training and just tried to keep really solid.”
Saturday’s performance was especially dominant.
Real Salt Lake were limited to no corner kicks, just the second time the Timbers have achieved that feat since joining MLS in 2011, and only two shots on goal, none of which were especially threatening for Kwarasey as he became the first Timbers goalkeeper to record a clean sheet in his debut.
“I’m really proud of two players in particular who played really well tonight,” Borchers said. “That was George Fochive and Jack Jewsbury. They did a good job denying the passing lanes to [Javier] Morales because he makes them tick, and I thought they were outstanding in their defensive qualities.”
Fochive is likely to give way to Chara in Portland’s next outing, home Sunday against the LA Galaxy (7 pm ET; Fox Sports 1), as he was back to training Tuesday after recovering from a hard knock suffered two weeks ago in a preseason match. One thing unlikely to change, however, is Portland’s commitment to an elite defense.
“I think Adam and the back six – the back four and the two holding mids – that core, we know that we can continue to hold teams,” Jewsbury said. “You look at tonight and you saw a team like Real Salt Lake, that is very dangerous going forward, had two shots [on goal]. We feel very comfortable with the group we have in there right now. We are going to continue to limit teams, and now it’s just a matter of getting things clicking going the other way.”