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Depth Charge: The Liam Ridgewell question

What Liam Ridgewell’s omission says about squad selection under Giovanni Savarese’s Timbers

Bill Tuiloma (right) cool under pressure in training and in play.
Bennett Dewan

“As soon as they scored the second goal, we gave up,” Giovanni Savarese said, following a Portland Timbers 4-0 loss to a New York Red Bulls team resting several of their starters. Savarese called the loss, “embarrassing”, adding: “If we want to be the type of team that wants to win a championship we need to do a lot more work,” Savarese continued. ”But, most of all we need to have the right attitude.”

Over the course of the next month, the Timbers put in that work, and began presenting the right attitude and, sure enough, began seeing positive returns: going from securing a point on the road against F.C. Dallas despite playing the last 15 minutes with a man disadvantage, to being in winning positions against Chicago and Orlando, to finally breaking through with Saturday’s 3-2 win over Minnesota United.

It’s hard to quantify attributes like “attitude” and “energy”. Instead, it’s much easier to point to roster trends one of which was the insertion of Bill Tuiloma at centerback. More notable is the player Tuiolma replaced: Liam Ridgewell. In the span if six days Ridgewell went from team captain to a fringe player, not even traveling with the team.

Minnesota United FC  v Portland Timbers
Hey guys, remember me? Guys?
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Tuiloma is not new to the Portland Timbers; he made 11 appearances (11 starts) and recorded three goals for T2 in 2017 and made one appearance in 18 last year. But he’s acclimated well to the first team; scoring a goal in his second match and showing poise and a cool demeanor on the field.

When asked what he saw in Tuiloma, Savarese pointed to four qualities he saw from the 23-year-old New Zealand international: “One, is confidence. Second is that he is a talented player. I think the third is that we’ve been working together to make sure that we are better defensively and I’ve seen that we have progressed. Still work to be done but I’ve seen something that is better. And the fourth is that socially he’s a guy that everybody likes. He knows how to communicate. He knows how to be able to be a guy that can be with everybody in the locker room.”

It’s hard to read that ignore the subtext that these four qualities are lacking in Ridgewell. It’s a curious time for the English international with Ridgewell again battling calf injuries, all too reminiscent of last year when his calf forced Ridgewell out of several matches and may have directly led to the resignation of the team’s head trainer.

So what exactly is Ridgewell’s status? Savarese has been presented with this question with varying degrees of directness on at least three separate occasions with media members. Savarese’s remark that “[Liam has] always been part of the team he’s always an important component,” is probably as close as we are going to get to a definitive answer until Ridgewell is either reinserted or released by the team. It also begs the question: who’s behind Tuiloma on the depth chart? Is Ridgewell looking up at Lawrence Olum and Julio Cascante as well?

In a different sport or different league, many executives wouldn’t bat an eyelash at keeping an expensive piece from a previous regime on the sidelines. However in the salary capped world of Major League Soccer, keeping a contract like Ridgewell’s out of the 18 is an expensive proposition, even if the Timbers have considerably more financial flexibility now to cut their losses.

Savarese came to Portland with a reputation of not being committed to a single player at any one position. As promised, he hasn't changed his approach. It’s what he sees during training that determines who gets rewarded with minutes, not the figures in a player’s contract. Only six games into the season, the Ridgewell Omission is proof that this is indeed a very differently run team.