As the media were ushered into the Portland Timbers’ locker room on Sunday night, Craig David’s song ‘Walking Away’ could be heard echoing throughout the room. The R&B singer was never a huge success in the United States, but it was clear someone on the team was a fan.
“Yeah that’s my influence,” Liam Ridgewell told Yahoo Sport UK with a laugh. “Mine and Jack Barmby’s influence for sure. He loves his music.”
Ridgewell hums the tune, and as he takes to his locker, his knees wrapped with large bags of ice, he looks at home. A year ago Ridgewell swapped the comfort of England and West Bromwich Albion for Portland, Oregon, and he hasn’t looked back since. “It was a huge risk and a big gamble for me to come here,” Ridgewell said. “With my kids being so young it was a gamble, even for my career.”
It would be fair to suggest that gamble has paid off. Ridgewell is largely considered one of the league’s better defenders, and has found his new surroundings easy to adjust to, both on and off the field. “Portland’s definitely my kind of town,” he said. “In New York it’s nice, but Portland, it’s like where we hang around back home [in London], Shoreditch, Hoxton, the places where we like to go out and about, which is great.”
As well as feeling like home, Ridgewell has become enamored with the people of Portland. The defender lives on Lake Oswego, to the south of the city. “That’s one of the good things, that you can go about life quietly,” he said. “Back home you can’t really go anywhere without someone seeing you, wanting a picture, asking you questions. In Portland, you go out and people buy you a beer. They want to enjoy your company. It does relieve a little bit of that stress, and you enjoy it more.”
Given that the 31-year-old played for Aston Villa, Birmingham City, and West Brom, a quiet life was never likely in England. Yet even half way across the world, Ridgewell can’t help but cast his eye over the fortunes of his former clubs. “It was really sad to see Villa go down last season,” he said. “They were my first pro club, and there’s still so many people I know there. But I think with Stiliyan [Petrov] coming back it’s been fantastic. To see him back out there again after all he has been through has been tremendous. I think if I do go to the derby next season though, [between Villa and Birmingham] I’ll sit on the halfway line in a cardboard box [laughs].”
Talk of a return to England poses an interesting dilemma for Ridgewell. The defender has enjoyed two loan spells in the Championship with Brighton and Wigan during the offseason, and returned in January an MLS Cup holder. Yet, in speaking to the 31-year-old, it is clear where he sees his future. “I’ve got 6 months left on my deal,” he said. “When I moved, I had my family back home and it wasn’t something I could look at long term because I had to think about the kids. So it was a two-year-deal, and as long as my kids were fine with it, and my family were fine with it, we could then look to extend it, and that’s what we’re trying to do now. We’re in negotiations with the club at the minute, and hopefully we can sort things out and keep me here for another couple of years.”
Speaking to Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, it would seem there is a mutual eagerness for Ridgewell to remain in Portland. “Every coach will tell you you’re only as good as your players, and I have very good players,” Porter told Yahoo Sport UK on Sunday. “Ever since we signed Liam Ridgewell our track record defensively has been outstanding, and he’s a big part of that. His ability to to lead the line, to communicate, and his quality in general has been impressive.”
Winning the admiration of his coach, the defender is also highly thought of by his teammates. “I hate hanging out with him,” Nat Borchers joked. “No he’s a great guy. He’s a real man’s man, the kind of guy you want to sit down and have a beer with.”
Catching the eye with December’s MLS Cup win, the Designated Player’s exploits have also been of interest to colleagues back home in England. “Suddenly I come here and people start saying, ‘you’re playing well’. You don’t get that type of praise back home,” he said. “It’s nice. I’ve had a few texts from lads back home asking if I can talk to this manager, or sort this deal out. I won’t name names, but you do get them texts. I think people saw it as a thing for later in your career, but I think you’re going to start to see people coming in younger and raising the level of MLS.”
However, Portland’s defence of their title has unfortunately not been a strong one. The Timbers are currently 7th in the Western Conference, which would see them miss out on the play-offs if they remained there. “It’s been difficult with the injuries we’ve had, players coming and going, it’s been the continuity that we’ve struggled with this season,” Ridgewell explained. “Even myself, I’ve been out a bit through injury, and last year we didn’t have that. We had the same back 4 or back 5 almost every single game. That’s been something new we’ve had to learn to deal with.”
As well as struggling with injuries, the Timbers have also had to adapt to changing perceptions. Success has not only brought personal achievement, but also a more cautious approach from their opponents. “I think this year we’ve had to learn how to go and win games,” Ridgewell said. “Last year we were probably the underdogs going into games, whereas teams now know what we can do. We’re not champions for no reason. We’ve had to learn how to play as champions. In my career I’ve always been an underdog playing a Man United, or an Arsenal, sitting back, but we’re that team this year.”
Improving his own game, and with a chance still to win yet more silverware, it is easy to see why Ridgewell sees a future for himself in Portland. “I needed a change,” he said. “I needed something fresh. I needed something to reignite my love for the game and I found that at Portland.”
Now feeling at home in Oregon and playing with a smile on his face, that is never more evident than in the dressing room. Kindly offering a handshake at the end of our chat, Ridgewell cannot help bursting into song as he makes his way into the showers, serenading his teammates with another Craig David classic in the process.