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Liam Ridgewell playing key role in third playoff run with Portland Timbers

Sep 29, 2018; Portland, OR, USA; FC Dallas forward Maximiliano Urruti (37) attempts to stop a pass by Portland Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell (24) during the first half at Providence Park. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

It was a moment of pure elation for the Timbers center back, who played a vital role in helping the club make an unexpected run to their first MLS Cup title.

Three years later, Ridgewell wants to recapture that feeling once again.

“I think for us that went through 2015, it’s our responsibility to let the boys know what is at the end and how good a feeling it really is,” Ridgewell said. “We’ve got this far, so why stop now? You want to make it all the way through to the MLS Cup final and you want to win it when you get there.”

For the second time in four seasons, Ridgewell and the Timbers are preparing to play in a Western Conference Championship series with a chance to earn a spot in the MLS Cup.

After ousting FC Dallas in the knockout round of the playoffs on Oct. 31 and beating the Seattle Sounders in an epic Western Conference semifinal series last week, Portland earned a berth to the Western Conference Championship. The club will face Sporting Kansas City in the two-leg series beginning on Nov. 25.

While Ridgewell has been in this spot before, this has been a very different season for the 34-year-old center back. Ridgewell captained the Timbers during their MLS Cup-winning season, starting 32 games in the regular season before anchoring the backline during the playoff run. This year, things haven’t come as easily for Ridgewell, who has been in and out of the lineup due to a multitude of factors, including a surprise coaching decision from head coach Giovanni Savarese.

But since reclaiming his starting role in August, Ridgewell has been a mainstay on the backline. And that has been huge for the Timbers.

Ridgewell helped the club earn four clean sheets in his final seven starts of the regular season as the Timbers clinched a playoff spot with a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference. He has also started in all three playoff games so far, bringing consistency to the field and doing his part to make the Timbers a tough team to break down on defense.

“I think now you guys believe me when I always said that he was going to be important for the club,” Savarese said. “He’s showing it. He’s done everything the right way. He’s been working very hard. He’s been playing the way we wanted him to play. So, we’re glad that, not only him, but everybody is very engaged and going forward all together.”

Ridgewell’s experience and leadership have been particularly important to the Timbers as they’ve strived to make a run in this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs.

During his long 16-year professional career, Ridgewell, 34, has competed at the top levels in England and played in plenty of pressure-filled matches. Before leading the Timbers to the 2015 MLS Cup, Ridgewell helped Birmingham City win the 2011 Football League Cup.

Ridgewell’s extensive experience has enabled him to play a vocal role on the field for the Timbers down the stretch. He is constantly giving directions and helping to position his teammates during games.

“The main thing is just to keep a clean sheet,” Ridgewell said. “It’s been a good last few months and, hopefully, I can maintain my form and, hopefully, the team can as well.”

While the players in the attack often get the most accolades, a strong defense is crucial to an MLS Cup run. In 2015, Ridgewell and fellow veteran center back Nat Borchers helped the club claim the MLS Cup as arguably the best center back pairing in MLS.

This year, Ridgewell has also developed a strong partnership with another fellow veteran center back, Larrys Mabiala. Having the two veterans anchoring the backline has helped the Timbers as they’ve strived to stay compact and organized on defense during the playoff run. While Portland made three uncharacteristic individual errors that led to goals in their series win against Seattle last week, the backline did a good job throughout the match of frustrating the Sounders and not letting Seattle break them down.

“(Center backs) Bill (Tuiloma) and Julio (Cascante) have a lot of qualities, but they don’t have this leadership, this communication and the confidence that Liam can bring to this team,” Mabiala said. “You can’t have as much confidence as Liam has at the age of 34. It’s good to have him back there.”

The Timbers will need to be at their best on defense if they hope to get past Kansas City in the Western Conference Championship series. Kansas City netted 65 goals during the 2018 regular season. Only three teams in MLS scored more goals.

But that’s the kind of challenge that Ridgewell relishes as a defender.

After ousting the Sounders from the playoffs last week, Ridgewell and the rest of the Timbers celebrated in the locker room at CenturyLink Field. But when the club returned to training Monday morning, Ridgewell was quick to remind his teammates that they still had more work to do.

“Seattle was a big feeling,” Ridgewell said. “I get it. It was a good win, but I want a bigger one and I want more of a celebration than just the Seattle win. We still need to go win the MLS Cup. That’s what we set out to do at the start of the season. This is what the team is made of. This is what the team wants to do and the players are expected to do. So, I hope there’s more to come.”
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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