The 2017 MLS season has only just begun, but the Portland Timbers defense is already falling victim to the injury bug. Caleb Porter recognizes this and knows the defense is going to be an issue while the starters heal. “We have three of our four backs that are out, so it’s not going to be perfect,” he said after the team’s 3-2 defeat to Columbus Crew SC last Saturday.
Portland Timbers Defense Surviving Despite Injuries
Let’s open with a rundown of the problems plaguing the Rose City back line. Gbenga Arokoyo was supposed to be the regular starter next to Liam Ridgewell, but he ruptured his Achilles tendon before the regular season started. Captain Ridgewell hasn’t played since the opener thanks to a foot sprain. He is hoping to be back on the field for Sunday night’s clash with New England. Vytas Andriuškevičius has also sat out since the opener and is day-to-day with a calf strain. Marco Farfan, who took Vytas’s place against LA Galaxy, suffered from the flu against Houston and was on the bench Saturday night in Ohio.
Four Games, Three Back Fours
The team is four games into the season and they have already used three different starting back fours. Inconsistency because of injuries was one of the primary reasons the Timbers regressed so hard at the back last season. The 2017 campaign looks eerily similar as only two players have started every game.
Those two are Lawrence Olum and Alvas Powell. Olum was a depth signing and expected to be a bench player throughout the year. He is doing the best he can, but his age is showing throughout the early season. His interceptions and clearances are down from last season when he was as semi-regular for Sporting Kansas City.
Powell has, thankfully, been his usual self at right back. He saw a lot of action against the Crew, who were pounding his flank throughout the match in order to take advantage of Dairon Aspirlla’s defensive weaknesses in front of him. Columbus could have scored a lot more than three goals if Powell was not having as strong of a night. His eight successful tackles were detrimental to the Crew attack.
Costa Rican newcomer Roy Miller has started three of four games in place of Ridgewell. He has improved with each game and feels his partnership with Olum is strengthening, even with such a short time together. “I think the communication for us is going much better. We’ve only had two games to play together. Every game we play we try to communicate and understand more,” he said after the defeat. Miller has been a pleasant surprise since arriving from Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica. His 4.3 interceptions per game ranks third best in all of MLS and are a big reason he should retain his starting spot when Ridgewell is healthy.
Rotating Cast as Left Back
Left back has been the biggest rotating cast of characters. Vytas is the usual starter as his play during preseason and during the opener showed he is adjusting to MLS quite well. He is becoming a strong attacking full back after looking timid going forward last season.
His injury led the the debut of Marco Farfan against LA Galaxy. Farfan played well, considering it was his first top level match of his career. He was more defensive against LA than Vytas was a week earlier and it worked to a charm. The Galaxy focused their attack along his flank and Farfan was up to the task every time. His five successful tackles were fantastic for a Timbers team that struggled to keep possession against a ten man foe.
Farfan came down with the flu before the Dynamo game, which led to Zarek Valentin joining the eleven for the Houston game. He grabbed an assist during the comeback win and played well enough to convince Porter to give him a go again against Columbus. He failed to repeat his performance this time around and was subbed off in the dying minutes.
Optimal Starters When Healthy
All the injuries plaguing this defense should clear up in time, possibly even for Sunday night against the Revs. Liam Ridgewell will return as captain and leader of the back four. Vytas will come back and resume his progression towards being a strong defensive full back with a flair for attacking. Finally, Roy Miller has done enough to convince me he deserves a starting spot. He has been disciplined at the back and has shown an ability to pick out opposing passes.
The Portland Timbers defense was expected to be a weak spot heading into the season. Injuries have whittled the unit down to it’s bare bones, but they are surviving with three wins in four matches to open the season. They have conceded a goal and a half per game, which is good enough thanks to the potency of their attack. That number should drop once their best four can be out there together on a consistent basis.