Timbers defense seeks cohesion

Only one player in back four has started all five matches

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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PORTLAND — Getting on the same page can sometimes take a while.

On defense, it is taking longer than the 2014 Portland Timbers would like.

Five games into the Major League Soccer season, the Timbers have conceded 10 goals. For a club that was scored on 33 times in 34 games last season, the flood of opponents’ goals has been disconcerting.

But, perhaps, it shouldn’t be surprising.

In their run to the top of the Western Conference in 2013, the Timbers posted shutouts in five of their final six regular-season matches. In those six, they had the same back four in front of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts: Jack Jewsbury at right back, Michael Harrington at left back and Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso in the middle.

While noting that the shutout run didn’t carry into the playoffs, Timbers coach Caleb Porter said the late-2013 success on defense was an example of how consistent lineups can bring results.

“We developed some confidence, some rhythm and understanding. That’s a big part of playing well defensively in the back four is getting an understanding and a connection so that you’re a cohesive group,” Porter said.

Entering Saturday’s game against Chivas USA at Providence Park, Harrington is the only defender to start all five Timbers games this season. Injuries have been a factor, and against Seattle last weekend Porter went with the speed of Alvas Powell over the experience of Jack Jewsbury at right back.

It didn’t help that top goalkeeper Ricketts missed two-plus games after a foul that earned him a red card at Colorado. Starting with that foul, which resulted in a penalty kick, Timbers opponents have scored eight times in about 200 minutes. Ricketts is expected to return to the lineup against Chivas.

On Friday Porter said that the back four is the spot coaches most want continuity.

Because there is more training time than game time, practice is where the relationships develop that build a strong team, Porter said.

“To me, winning comes down to chemistry a lot,” the coach said. “Sometimes it’s one (player) in or out (that) makes a difference. Sometimes it’s just emphasizing different things. Sometimes it’s just time.”

Veteran Argentine center back Norberto Paparatto is the newcomer to the Timbers back line. He is working to learn English, as well as learning to play alongside new teammates.

Porter compared the experience for Paparatto and forward Gaston Fernandez to watching TV with no sound.

“In training they’re watching TV with no sound. In a meeting they’re watching me with no sound,” Porter said. “So I’m sure there are little messages and little things that fall through the cracks. And in terms of the bonding and the relationship amongst the guys, that takes time as well.”

The team bond that took the Timbers to new heights last season is a work in progress this season.

“I’m always thinking about (chemistry), always tinkering with that,” Porter said, explaining that he watches and studies interactions among teammates on the field and away from it. “Last year we had very good chemistry. That was a big part of us winning.

“I think we’ll get that going again,” Porter said. “For whatever reason, I don’t think we’ve gotten it going completely like we want, yet.”