How Portland Will Fix Its Defense

Stability, youth offer positives for Portland to build on
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, November 21, 2014

Green Logs - a column on the Portland Timbers & the Portland soccer scene

For the most part, there has been no good defense for the Portland Timbers defense in 2014.

But there are glimmers of hope, and that little bit of hope could be something to build on in 2015.

The Timbers’ back line was the most maligned part of the club this season, and they deserved much of the criticism. Poor marking, lackadaisical passing and seemingly not knowing where opposing players were in the box are all aspects of the defense that seemed to happen at the worst possible times, often leaving Donovan Ricketts watching the ball go into the net.

It was a group that frustrated Caleb Porter plenty, and he wasn’t afraid to call them out after tough losses or draws. With as much tinkering as was done, nothing just seemed to work.

The back four that started the season against Philadelphia looked little like the group that finished at Dallas. The starting defense against the Union was Jack Jewsbury, Norberto Paparatto, Pa Modou Kah and Michael Harrington. Steve Zakuani subbed in for Jewsbury late as an extra midfielder, and Futty Danso, the only defender on the bench, came on for Kah after he was hurt in the first half.

The starting defense against Dallas in the season finale? Alvis Powell, Kah, Liam Ridgewell and Jorge Villafaña. Harrington came in for Powell late in the match, while Jewsbury and Rauwshan McKenzie stayed on the bench. Paparatto played against Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League earlier in the week, but didn’t suit up against FC Dallas.

That’s a big change. Kah was the only one of the 4 who started the opener who also started the finale, but his season was very much up and down. Paparatto battled injuries and inconsistency for much of the season. Jewsbury started playing a bit more in midfield, especially in the CCL, but only played in two of the final 12 MLS matches. Harrington also battled injuries, but also saw less action at the season and eventually lost his starting spot.

Of course, there were a few changes during the season. The signing of Ridgewell, who had fallen out with West Bromwich Albion, was a big splash. Trading Danso to Montréal for a draft pick was a shock. Signing Danny O’Rourke seemed like an afterthought at first, but he put in decent minutes as the season went on. Villafaña, Powell, Taylor Peay and Bryan Gallego all went on loan to USL Pro clubs for various times, and the playing time helped.

But with the turnover comes a bit of clarity, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Portland starts 2015 with a back four of Powell, Paparatto, Ridgewell and Villafaña. The one question there is Powell, who is still on loan from Jamaica’s Portmore United and has been the subject of some European rumors. But, assuming he stays, the revolving lineup of defenders that the Timbers had in 2014 just might stabilize a bit.

Every other defender on the Timbers’ roster likely will be left unprotected in the December 10 expansion draft, with the exception of Gallego (still listed as a Homegrown Player, thus likely automatically protected). If Orlando City or New York City FC decide to choose a defender from Portland, that could help, but only slightly.

Who might stay? That’s an important question for Porter and Gavin Wilkinson to answer. Harrington still might have trade value, but his fade at the end of 2014 could hurt his stock. Jewsbury has lost some of his quickness, but his experience is still an asset. But a 33-year-old reserve player may not be what the Timbers want.

Some may already be as good as gone. Kah is 34 and has been a source of frustration for much of the season. It would be a surprise if he returned. O’Rourke is in the same situation, as a 31-year-old on the fringe likely won’t be retained. McKenzie may have run out of chances, and seeing him in Timbers green in 2015 would be a big longshot.

Youth might also equal depth, as well. Peay and Gallego will likely see time in the match day 18, but also could become regulars with Timbers 2 in USL Pro while waiting for their chance with the big club. That playing time could be important once they get the call to the first team.

Of course, there likely will be some new faces heading to Portland to help the defense. Whether the Timbers sign an MLS veteran, snag one from the Re-Entry Draft, get a loan deal for a player or are able to bring another international to the Rose City, they will have specific roles to play, and will be expected to make the maligned Timbers defense better. Those who get signed to play for Timbers 2 will also be expected to contribute at a high level, as needed.

While there are plenty of questions around Portland’s defense, the possibility of a stable, and decent, starting back line is there. There would be expectations that Powell, Paparatto, Ridgewell and Villafaña can become the solid, consistent back line that fans have waited for since the Timbers entered MLS.

Compared to 2014, those expectations shouldn’t be too hard to achieve.

NEXT UP: January 31 – Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City, Kino North Stadium, Tucson, Ariz. 8:00 p.m. EST, TBA.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.