Joy in the job | Liam Ridgewell's presence created unique legacy with Timbers

The stats spoke for themselves. Throughout his tenure in Portland, they always did. Liam Ridgewell was the first big defensive acquisition in the Timbers’ Major League Soccer history, and whether you measure it in trophies (three), postseason wins (seven) or the type of on-off numbers we cited over the 2018 season’s final months, the former captain more than justified that acquisition on the field.

Portland Timbers goals allowed; 2018 MLS; regular season and playoffs
  Minutes Played Goals Allowed GA/90
with Liam Ridgewell 1654 21 1.14
without Liam Ridgewell 1774 35 1.78

On the field, though, will only be part of Ridgewell’s Portland legacy, one that will live on in the short term through the teammates he’s left behind following Thursday's announcement that the Timbers and Portland mutually agreed to part ways. He was the one who led them on the field, his vocal presence often serving as an on-field coach. He was the one they’d occasionally go to with a piece of film on their laptops and phone, asking questions about what he sees in or how he’d react to scenarios. He was the one whose unique brand of aloof confidence helped the team’s believe it could beat anybody, without spending every waking hour worrying about how they’d prove it.

Ridgewell isn’t the most physically-gifted defender Portland’s ever had, but over the course of his four-and-a-half-year tenure in the Rose City, he became the team’s most important. Players like Eric Brunner and Futty Danso had played well, before, while others like Nat Borchers and Larrys Mabiala excelled beside him, but it was only while Ridgewell was on the field that the Timbers, since the middle of the 2014 season, have reached their potential.

Portland Timbers regular season results, after Ridgewell's arrival (mid-2014)
  Games Record (W-L-T) Points/Game GF/90 GA/90 +/-
with Liam Ridgewell 91 45-28-18 1.68 1.49 1.23 +24
without Liam Ridgewell 63 20-23-20 1.27 1.54 1.57 -2

“We are a better team when Liam’s in it when Liam is doing what Liam does,” Timbers’ President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson said, in the week after MLS Cup. “The quality of Liam is incredible. The personality. The ability on the field. Anybody that’s objective understands what he brings to the group.”

There comes a point, though, that even the most fruitful of relationships end, something Timbers fans have dealt with often as the 2015-Cup-winning core has drifted apart. At this time last year, it was Darlington Nagbe. A few months later, Fanendo Adi moved on, too. Players like Borchers, Rodney Wallace and Maxi Urruti had left the team before, but with Ridgewell, the departure feels different. This is more than somebody who had value on the field. This is somebody who, in his own way, has become part of the Timbers’ culture.

The word “has,” there, will have to stay for a while, as a team doesn’t just move on from a necessarily element with a press release and a post. When the remaining players reconvene in the coming weeks for preseason, Ridgewell’s influence on the squad will still be there, if vastly diminished without his presence. Over time, though, it will be incumbent on personalities like Diego Chara, Diego Valeri and others to compensate for what’s gone. And given Ridgewell’s personality, that may prove hard.

In his playfulness, whimsy, along with the credibility he earned with his play on the field, the former Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion defender forged a special place in the dressing room. He may not have had the philosophical presence of Valeri, or the metronomic consistency of Chara, but he was outgoing, and connective. He brought an element of fun which, along with an athlete’s sharpened edge, added a cocky delight to the locker room. He may have been a father three times over and well established as a family man off the field, but in the pleasure he found from playing as a professional, Ridgewell reminded everyone that there should be joy in the job.

It's a combination of prestige and pleasure that Adi had, too. Sebastián Blanco has the same spark. But it’s unique that a personality so mischievous also commands so much respect. That’s not something you replace easily, and as the Timbers’ MLS era prior to Ridgewell’s arrival shows, it’s not something you always have in a squad.

In 2015, the fit was right, when Ridgewell was one of the most important pieces as the Timbers claimed their first star. It was right in 2017, too, as Portland surged to the top of the conference, as well as the next season, with the Timbers' return to MLS Cup. Among the players whom it’s impossible to imagine those squads without, Ridgewell ranks near the top. His influence has to be mentioned right after legends like Chara and Valeri.

In all, there were two conference titles. There was also an MLS Cup, another first-place finish in the West, an MLS All-Star Game and, through much of his career in the Rose City, a place at the top of the line when the team walked out of the tunnel. He is the best player on the ball the team has ever had in central defense, a distinction that is not a particularly close call. Today’s announcement doesn’t change any of those things, and for those who spent so much of their lives at Providence Park, those memories will never be forgotten.

Now, though, it’s time for each side to make new memories on their own. The Timbers without their former captain. The former captain, with a new squad. No matter where he ends up, though, the moments Ridgewell helped in Portland will forever live on.

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