This Saturday, the Philadelphia Union will play host to the Portland Timbers, a red hot team that has won six of their last seven games, only losing 5-0 against the LA Galaxy. With the exception of that game, Portland has allowed only two goals in their last six contests.
In a season where Diego Valeri and Will Johnson have missed significant games, the Timbers have been forced to rely on a steady defense in an increasingly competitive Western Conference. Despite the significant attacking talents around the league, Portland’s backline has stood up to the test, allowing only 1.05 goals a game. This defensive effort has been achieved through a variety of factors, most notably the outstanding play of center backs Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers. While they are a ruthlessly effective pairing, Ridgewell and Borchers go about their play in drastically different styles, and the numbers back it up.
Liam Ridgewell is a highly mobile and active center back, as evidenced by his 131 clearances (2nd most in MLS), 74 recoveries, 11 blocks, and 25 interceptions. He has additionally won 65 duels, 34 of which were in the air, giving him a ground duel percentage of 59.5% and an aerial duel percentage of 69.4%, both of which are outstanding numbers amongst MLS center backs. Ridgewell has achieved these numbers using his high motor and strong frame to break up plays all over his team’s defensive half. But despite Ridgewell’s tremendous energy and mobility, he is a less refined passer of the ball, with a total passing accuracy of 77.3% and an attacking half accuracy rate of 60.7%.
Meanwhile, Nat Borchers has adapted his game to accommodate Ridgewell’s strengths and weaknesses. While his partner is quick to move up the field and breakup play, Borchers uses his positional awareness to fill in holes away from the ball and maintain Portland’s defensive shape. This more conservative and disciplined playing style has led to reduced numbers (88 clearances and seven tackles won), but has been quietly effective in its own right. Because of his tendency to hold shape, Borchers has accumulated 20 blocks over the course of the season. And most notably, he has only conceded six fouls and has yet to earn a card in his sixteen games played thus far, a key reason that Portland is dead last in fouls conceded per game. Borchers has also bolstered Portland’s attack in utilizing his distribution ability, with a total passing accuracy of 87.7%.
Despite their differences, Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers have become one of the most feared and respected center back pairings that MLS has to offer. Their partnership has boosted Portland to third in the West, and the Union attack must come in well prepared in oder to have a chance at breaking them down.