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Grading the Timbers: Goalkeepers and Defenders

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Forty-six weeks after it began, the 2015 Portland Timbers season is over. And it’s over in the best possible way.

That means, however, that it's time to take a look back and grade the season that was for each of the Timbers players, Caleb Porter, and Gavin Wilkinson.

But first a few points of housekeeping.

Grades are, of course, relative to expectations for a player. So the fact that George Fochive has a better grade than Diego Valeri does not mean that Fochive is better than Valeri. Rather, it just means Fochive was better relative to what we expected from the second-year man from UConn and from the two-time Best XI selection.

Second this isn't graduate school; there's no grade inflation. As tempting as it is after an MLS Cup win to give everybody an A, we have to be a bit less sentimental. If a player is in the C+/B- range, it means he more or less met expectations.

Finally, although there are certainly some players signed to T2 that merit discussion, only players signed to the first team will earn grades. Why? Because this series is already over 4000 words.

So today we begin with the goalkeepers and defenders. On Wednesday we'll assess the midfield and the wingers. And on Thursday we'll finish up with the strikeforce and the front office.

The Goalkeepers

Adam Kwarasey, B+:  Being a goalkeeper coming to a new team can be difficult, so Kwarasey was always going to be a little bit of a risky signing. And while Kwarasey was helped by a dramatically improved backline in front of him and a tactical approach that left fewer spaces for opponents to exploit, it's hard reach any conclusion other than Kwarasey had a better-than-expected debut season in Portland. While his distribution certainly proved to be an asset for the Timbers in 2015, on balance Kwarasey's shot-saving was only average despite winning a demographically friendly vote for Save of the Year and the Ghanaian international also spilled a few more balls into the box than you’d like to see. But, then again, there's also the small matter of his heroics against Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round of the playoffs.  At 27 years old, Kwarasey is still relatively young for a number one and there is plenty of reason to believe the Ghanaian goalkeeper still has some unexplored upside. On the whole, therefore, it was a good-to-very good year for Kwarasey.

Jake Gleeson, C+:  Coming off a year in which he was a finalist for USL Goalkeeper of the Year, 2015 was a little bit of a disappointment for Gleeson until he received the unexpected nod in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinal against the Whitecaps. In a season in which there had been some depth-chart ambiguity between Gleeson and Andrew Weber, the start was perhaps the clearest indication yet that Gleeson had wrested control of the second-goalkeeper spot. Still, at 25 it's reasonable to want to see more first-team action from Gleeson at this point in his development. If he doesn't get it in 2016, it may be time to question Gleeson's development arch.

Andrew Weber, C:  Weber is who Weber is. His only first-team appearance in 2015 was in Philadelphia when he was hardly the hero in the face of a leaky backline. At 32, Weber still has a couple prime years ahead of him, so for the right price he's a reasonable MLS backup. But there will come a point when his roster spot will be better filled by a younger, higher-upside option. And it appears the Timbers have reached that point.

The Left Backs

Jorge Villafana, A-:  The Timbers were pleased enough with Villafana's 2014 campaign that they engaged in some expansion-draft wrangling and used the annual amnesty provision to keep from losing him. Villafana didn't disappoint. One of the most consistent contributors on the backline, Villafana worked himself into a position in which he was in the top third of MLS left backs and has earned some shouts to join the fringes of the U.S. National Team picture. Villafana saved perhaps his best performance of the season for last in 2015, as he shut down MLS Best XI winger Ethan Finlay in the MLS Cup Final. During his time in Portland, Villafana has gone from the fringes of Porter’s 18-man gameday roster to being one of the best left backs in MLS.

Jeanderson, D:  Jeanderson came in as an affordable flyer that the Timbers hoped would turn out to be a diamond in the rough from the lower divisions in Brazil. Initial hopes that Jeanderson could push to start at left back for the first team by the end of the season were quelled by Jeanderson not showing the defensive chops and Villafana not showing any interest in relinquishing the spot. The Timbers have plenty of needs to fill at left back, but those roles will be filled by newcomers and/or Andy Thoma in 2016.

Andy Thoma, B:  Thoma looked every bit the part of a legitimate left-back prospect with T2 in 2015, and shows every sign of being on the same trajectory as Fochive and Taylor Peay in 2014. Although Thoma didn't make his first-team debut in 2015, it won't be long until he does if he shows well in camp. In light of Jeanderson's departure, a strong camp to start 2016 would likely earn Thoma a regular place on the first-team bench and starting nods in U.S. Open Cup.

The Centerbacks

Liam Ridgewell, B+:  A terrific first half of the season for Ridgewell faded a little bit as the summer progressed. Still, Ridgewell was a major part of a backline that kept the Timbers afloat when the attack weighed the team down. On balance, it was a good, maybe not quite great season for Ridgewell, who the Timbers will very much want to return in 2016. The only question for Ridgewell is whether he is a worthwhile use of a designated player spot. Although there are non-DP centerbacks around the league that are as good - if not better - than Ridgewell, the effect Ridgewell has had both on the previously fragile backline and in the locker room makes overpaying a little bit for the Englishman and using a DP spot justifiable.

Nat Borchers, A:  Had a season that was in many ways a mirror image of Ridgewell's. Made a couple mistakes early on, but Borchers was arguably the best central defender in MLS from summertime through MLS Cup. In addition to his regular excellence, Borchers came up with a handful of key goals - including a stoppage-time winner against his former club - and Nat's block of Blas Perez's would-be equalizer in the second leg of the Western Conference Final will be remembered for a long time. Normally you'd have concerns about the longevity of a 34-year-old centerback, but Borchers's expert reading of the game, unmatched fitness, and lack of reliance on athleticism make him very likely to be productive for at least another season. All told, therefore, Borchers is a no-brainer for the Timbers' newcomer of the year.

Norberto Paparatto, B-:  This one is a challenge on the grading rubric. Paparatto played very well and very sparingly in 2015, making the season a little bit of a mixed bag for Papa. Although the Timbers would certainly love to keep a player of his quality in their third centerback spot, with two other 30-plus central defenders in front of Paparatto the Timbers probably need to look for some youth to fill in the depth at centerback and give the Timbers options for their succession plan in central defense. Accordingly, although it’s very possible Paparatto returns in 2016, it would make sense if both Paparatto and the Timbers decide to go in a different direction.

Anthony Manning, C+:  With a good, but not great season playing for T2, Manning more or less met expectations for 2015 as a raw, but talented centerback. And although he's closer to being able to contribute at an MLS level, Manning is only the second highest-rated centerback prospect with T2 to the super-raw but budding-by-the-day Rennico Clarke. Once Clarke recovers from his late-season knee injury, expect to see these two manning the backline for T2 in 2016.

The Right Backs

Alvas Powell, B:  He's still very much a 21-year-old right back and had some performances (especially late in the season) in which he showed his youth. But the athleticism and defensive ability is clearly there, as indicated by the fact that Powell won the second most tackles in MLS in 2015. Powell's defensive instincts are still developing (aided significantly this year by Borchers) and the Jamaican's attacking game is still raw, but on the whole 2015 was a year of progress on virtually every front.

Taylor Peay, A:  Peay's season is summed up fairly simply: He went from a rookie USL right back in 2014 to a trusted backup for the first team in 2015.  Peay was dominant in his 14 T2 starts and grew into being more than reliable in his five first-team appearances. Expect to see more of Taylor Peay in 2016.