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The Timbers’ defense and the importance of Larrys Mabiala

A closer look at the Timbers defense and how important Larrys Mabiala is to an often shaky backline.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

With news of Liam Ridgewell’s return to Portland via the broadcasting booth and Larrys Mabiala receiving a yellow card against LAFC that will see him miss the Timbers clash with Real Salt Lake, it’s fair to say the Timbers’ defense has been on my mind this week. So I thought I would quickly examine how the team has performed defensively thus far this season, the upturn in defensive output the team has shown in recent weeks, and how they will fair without Mabiala against RSL tomorrow.

I think everybody is in agreement when I say that the Timbers’ defense hasn’t been as good as they can and want to be so far in 2021.

Currently, the Timbers have the sixth-worst goal difference in MLS, have given away the second-most penalties in MLS (5), and have only won 49.3 percent of their defensive duels. Through the first 20 games of the season, the team had conceded 38 goals which was the second-most in MLS at the time, conceded three or more goals in a single match eight times, lost 10 times, and only taken 24 points of a possible 60. Ouch.

It felt like no matter which team the Timbers were going up against, 0-0 would not be the score at the final whistle and a clean sheet wasn’t be likely. Having said that, the last few matches have told a different story about the ability and resolve of the Timbers’ defense.

Anchored by Larrys Mabiala and Steve Clark (who were named to the MLS Team of the Week once and two times respectively since Aug. 30), the Timbers have posted three clean sheets in their last five games, taking 13 points of a possible 15 and only conceding three goals in the process. The surge in form has seen the Timbers shoot up to fifth place in the Western Conference standings and given fans (myself included) some renewed confidence in the solidity of the defense.

But while the defense has shown a marked improvement in September, some concerns still remain about the resiliency of the backline.

A lack of defensive discipline has become a worrying trend in the Timbers’ previous two matches after Bill Tuiloma was sent off in the 2-2 draw against the Colorado Rapids. And Larrys Mabiala’s aforementioned suspension makes tomorrow’s match against RSL, who have won three of their last four games and scored 10 goals in the process, that much more difficult.

Mabiala has cemented himself as the Timbers’ first-choice center back option since his debut in 2017 and has been the club’s most consistent defender this season. In 2021, Mabiala has won 80 percent of his tackles and 68.4 percent of his aerial duels, which are both team-highs by far. To put it into context, Dario Zuparic has the second-highest successful tackle rate on the team this season at 69.2 percent and Jose Van Rankin has the second-highest aerial duel success rate on the team at 61.9 percent.

The Timbers’ biggest defensive challenges this season have stemmed from set-pieces and crosses and Mabiala is the best defender the team has in those situations, so it will be up to Tuiloma and Zuparic to replace his aerial defending against an RSL team just one point behind Portland in the standings.

If the Timbers are going to beat RSL, it will be important for both of them to win their aerial duels and not to dive into any unnecessary challenges like those that saw Tuiloma sent off last weekend.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Am I confident in the backline’s ability to keep a dangerous RSL attack off of the scoreboard tomorrow without their best defender? No, not really. But if the last five games have taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

With any luck, one of the center backs will channel the energy of the return of one of the club’s most legendary defenders and bestow a Ridgy roll upon the Timbers Army to keep the unbeaten run going.