A-Z of English Abroad: A-League

The A-Z of English Abroad a new, and hopefully, regular series for this blog. First up, A and where else to start but the A-League?

Now coming to the end of its eleventh season, English players have featured significantly during the league’s short history. From former internationals like Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler to players who have done Down Under and never returned à la Chris Greenacre (currently Wellington Phoenix’s assistant manager).

Although nearly 30 Englishmen have plied their trade in the A-League, none currently grace Australia’s top-flight.

Here we have some of the highlights of English involvement in Australia’s top league.

The English Knights

The first season of the A-League saw just eight teams compete, compared to the ten which now take part. One side which competed in the inaugural season were the New Zealand Knights, quite possibly the A-League’s most unsuccessful side. The club lasted just two seasons, finishing last in both seasons.

However, in the club’s debut season, English boss John Adshead was in charge and there were high expectations for the side. Adshead was already a hero in New Zealand after he guided the country to their first ever World Cup in 1982.

With the expatriate hero at the helm, the Knights gave appearances to five Englishmen in the 2005-06 season. One of them was Darren Bazeley. The 32-year-old made the move to the other side of the world after making more than 400 appearances in England with Watford, Wolves and Walsall. The right-back played every single minute of the Knights’ inaugural campaign and captained the side for the second half of the season.

Another one of the Englishmen who featured for Adshead’s side that year was Ben Collett. The 21-year-old midfielder was tipped for the top during his youth days at Manchester United. However, a devastating leg break suffered by Collett at the age of 18 whilst playing for United’s reserve side prevented him from reaching his potential at Old Trafford and almost three years after his injury, Collett left United to join the Knights. He made 18 appearances before moving to lower-league Dutch side AGOVV Apeldoorn. In 2007, he was forced to retire through injury and a year later, was awarded a sum of over £4 million as compensation after taking legal action against Gary Smith and Middlesbrough, the player and the club involved in the injury.


Highlights from the 2-2 draw between New Zealand Knights and Sydney FC in December 2005, a rare point for the Knights. 


The other three were former Grimsby Town defender Ronnie Bull, who lasted just seven games, Simon Yeo, who scored four goals before returning home and Neil Emblen, who remains in New Zealand to this day and managed the country’s side in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Despite Adshead’s stewardship and experienced professionals from England, the Knights managed just one win all season, finishing rock bottom with six points.

The following season saw Knights finish last again and the club was disbanded.

The ex-international striker swansong 

Australia might not have the riches to compete with the US or China but it certainly has the lifestyle and the A-League has been able to tempt several England players to its shores.

The first to arrive was Brian Deane. The scorer of the first ever Premier League goal was coming to the end of a more than respectable career in his homeland and had picked up three England caps. At the age of 37, Deane lasted just seven games with Perth Glory before returning to Sheffield United for a third spell with the Blades. He did score one goal for Perth however, in a 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory in October 2005.

Next, there was Robbie Fowler. One of the Premier League’s greatest ever goal scorers, Fowler was a massive coup for the league when he signed for the now defunct North Queensland Fury in 2009. Despite his advancing years, Fowler proved a hit Down Under. During both of his years in the A-League (he spent the 2010-11 with Perth Glory) he finished as his club’s top scorer and also fired a hat-trick for Perth.

And then there was Emile Heskey. The experienced former England striker spent two seasons with Newcastle Jets between 2012 and 2014 to varying degrees of success. After an explosive start to his time with the Jets, scoring five goals in six games, the ex-Liverpool forward managed just five more in his next 36 matches. The Jets also finished outside the play-offs during both of Heskey’s seasons at the club but Fox Sports did offer viewers a ‘Heskey Cam’ experience for one match during his time in Australia.


One of the highlights of Heskey’s time Down Under, a speculative bicycle kick goal against Melbourne Victory


Heskey was actually brought in to replace another former England international in the shape of Francis Jeffers. The one-cap wonder had two spells with the Jets between 2010 and 2012, scoring two goals in 26 games. He then headed off to Malta to play a couple of games for Floriana before returning to England.

There was also Michael Bridges. Although technically not a full England international, he picked up 11 caps for Under-21s, Bridges featured in the A-League for a combined total of six seasons. The man who Leeds United paid £5 million for back in 1999, initially joined Sydney FC on loan in 2007 before returning to Australia in 2009 to spend five seasons with Newcastle Jets. In total he made 72 A-League appearances, scoring 13 goals.

Champions

Only one Englishman has won the A-League Grand Final and that is James Robinson. A former Crewe Alexandra midfielder, Robinson had a short stint in Iceland before moving to Australia. After initially playing below the top division with Richmond SC, he went on to join A-League club Melbourne Victory in 2006.

Robinson scored just one goal in his seven appearances with the Victory but it was one that went down in folklore. Robinson scored in the 93rd minute to secure a 2-1 aggregate win over Adelaide United and see Victory through to the 2007 Grand Final.


James Robinson’s injury time winner against Adelaide United in 2007.


Despite the Victory beating Adelaide in the semi-finals, the two clubs would go on to meet each other in the Grand Final due to play-off system used in Australia at the time. Victory thrashed Adelaide 6-0 to win their first ever A-League title, with Robinson playing the last thirty minutes. It would be Robinson’s last appearance for the Victory as he was released at the end of the season but he then went on to play for fellow A-League sides Perth Glory and North Queensland Fury.

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Exclusive interview with Chania’s Jordan Sanderson

Jordan Sanderson and Chania

The beautiful thing about football is that it can take you all over the world.

Jordan Sanderson and Chania

In an exclusive for English Players Abroad, Chania (A.O. Xania) midfielder Jordan Sanderson talks about life in his first season playing football in Greece.

Sanderson started his career at Colchester United and after making a couple of appearances for their first team in League One, and a loan spell at Chelmsford City, he left to join National League South side Ebbsfleet United.

After a year with Ebbsfleet, including a couple of loan spells at Lewes and Grays Athletic, the 22-year-old joined Chania in the second tier of Greek football last year.

This season has been a challenging one for Chania, with several managerial changes affecting their side’s performances on the pitch. The season started with Thomas Grafas in charge, before he was replaced by Georgios Lyronis in November. Gefas then returned in March and Chania’s form has picked up significantly.

The club has also played against top Greek Super League sides PAOK and Olympiacos in the cup this season and also drew with Super League side Panthrakikos in the same competition.

With four games remaining in the season, Sanderson talks to EPA exclusively about his ambitions for the future and how a familiar face helped him settle in his new surroundings.

English Players Abroad: After playing for a few clubs in England, how did the move to Chania come about?
Jordan Sanderson: The move to Chania came about after I had been on a series of unsuccessful trails with English clubs during pre season. The English season had started and I was without a club. My agent gave me a call and said Leroy Lita is over in Greece, we are with the same agency, their season hasn’t started [yet] and they are still in pre season, would you like to go over for a trial. I went and they liked what they saw so I signed.

EPA: Leroy Lita played alongside you at Chania for a while, did that help you settle in?
JS: I hadn’t met Leroy prior to coming to Greece [but] obviously I had heard of him given the career he has had. He was a massive help to me during his time here, almost like a big brother, and I learnt a lot from him both on and off the pitch.

EPA: How have you found adjusting to life in Greece?
JS: The main thing for me was to adjust to the weather. When people come to hot countries like Greece, it’s usually for a vacation and to relax so training in 30° of heat was very different to me but after the first month or so, I was fine. Life off the field wasn’t so hard to adjust to [as] I’m a very laid back person so the lifestyle of the people here suited me.

EPA: How does the standard of football in Greece’s second tier compare to what you were used to in England?
JS: The standard of football here compared to England is different. The tempo of the game in England is faster and more physical so I didn’t face any real problems adjusting to the game here.


Highlights from Chania’s 6-2 loss to Super League side PAOK in the group stage of the Greek Cup. Sanderson was involved in the build-up for Chania’s first goal, which gave his side the lead. Leroy Lita scored Chania’s second goal.


EPA: How would you describe your style of play?
JS: I see myself as a ball player. I like the ball and the technical aspect of my game is something I pride myself on. Since being in Greece, I have developed a different aspect to my game. I feel defensively my game has improved a lot and that’s massive for me because I know I can play with the ball so to be able to come here and develop that side of my game has really helped me.

EPA: With the Greek football season coming to an end, how would you describe Chania’s season?
JS: The season for us has been filled with ups and downs. We started well. We were in a good position coming into December [and] I think if we had turned some draws into wins, we would have been in a very good place. The change of management unsettled things more than they should have and consequently we paid for it. Not winning a game for five months was mentally draining for all the players. Even when we were playing well and creating chances, we couldn’t finish games and teams were punishing us for it. We [then] saw another change of management with the first manager being reinstated. Now we find ourselves fighting for survival with four games left to play but winning our last two games has boosted the morale of the team, and hopefully we can fight until the end and survive.

EPA: From your experiences, would you encourage more Englishmen to play their football abroad?
JS: If you have the opportunity, go for it. You never know what may come from it at the end.

EPA: What are your ambitions for the future? Are there any other countries you would like to play in?
JS: My main priority at the moment is to make sure the team are safe and what ever happens after that happens. The beautiful thing about football is that it can take you all over the world. I’d be open to play in many countries if I felt it was the right thing to do for my career at the time.

EPA: Finally, who is the best player you have ever played with or against?
JS: I’ve never played with or against any big named world class players but [I have played with] a lot of very good players, so it’s a hard one for me, but I’d have to give it to my Portuguese team-mate at Chania, Hugo Machado. The guy is a magician at the age of 33 and also a great guy off the field. [He is] always playing jokes, so yes, it’s been a pleasure to play alongside him.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter here.

MLS 20th Anniversary: Who were the original Englishmen in the States?

Who would have thought a league which settled draws with a penalty shoot-out would still be going strong twenty years on?

Well, that’s exactly what Major League Soccer has done (albeit now without the shoot-outs).

With the competition’s founding clubs now celebrating their twentieth season in one of the world’s fastest leagues, I thought I’d take a look at whether there was any English action over in the States back in 1996.

Just four Englishmen featured in MLS’ inaugural season, all of who lasted just one season in America’s top division. Let’s take a look at who they were.

Chris Woods
Chris Woods
Goalkeeper. Colorado Rapids. Appearances: 23 Clean sheets: 2

Arguably the most well-know of the four English exports, Chris Woods was 36 and reaching the end of an impressive career, which saw he rack up 43 caps for England, when he joined the Colorado Rapids.

After falling down the pecking order at Sheffield Wednesday, Woods signed a two-year deal with the Rapids as a marquee player. His move came nine games into the MLS season.

From then on, he was an ever present, playing all 23 of the Rapids’ remaining league matches as they missed out of the playoffs.

Despite having another year to run on his contract with the Rapids, Woods returned to England in 1996, initially on loan at Southampton before moving permanently to Sunderland.

However, that wasn’t to be Woods’ last involvement in US soccer. He returned to the country as goalkeeper coach in 2011, combining his duties at Everton and later Manchester United with a role at the USMNT.

Where are they now? Currently West Ham United’s goalkeeper coach.

Ian Butterworth
Ian Butterworth
Defender. Colorado Rapids. Appearances: 17 Goals: 0 Assists: 0

Similar to Woods, Ian Butterworth had a more than respectable career in his homeland before crossing the Atlantic to join the Rapids.

Arriving at Norwich City via spells at Coventry City and Nottingham Forest, the Crewe-born defender played over 290 games for the Carrow Road club in eight years. During that time, Norwich achieved their highest ever finish in the Premier League, finishing third in the 1992/93 season.

However, unlike Woods, Butterworth was there from the start for Colorado. He was the 82nd overall pick in the Inaugural MLS Draft and started in the Rapids’ first ever MLS match, a 3-0 loss to Kansas City Wizards.

After just one year with the Rapids, where he made seventeen appearances, Butterworth returned to Europe to play for Swedish side IK Brage.

Where are they now? Currently QPR’s chief scout.

Richard SharpeRichard Sharpe
Striker. Colorado Rapids. Appearances:
17 Goals: 2 Assists: 2

The last of the English contingent for Colorado Rapids in ’96, Richard Sharpe arrived in MLS through a different route to his compatriots.

The former West Ham United and Leyton Orient youth forward joined the Rapids as number 19 pick in the Supplmental Draft. However, Sharpe had moved to the States seven years previous to his big break in MLS.

After failing to peruse a professional football career in England, Sharpe moved to Florida to study at Florida Tech, where he also played college soccer.

Sharpe’s time in college soccer was the definition of prolific. To this day, he still holds numerous NCAA records, including the record number of goals in a season (49 from 21 games in 1992) and the all-time record for number of goals in NCAA Division II (137 in 72 games between 1990-93).

He carried his prolific goal-scoring into senior football with the Cocoa Expos in the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL), the fourth tier of football in the US at the time. He played two season with the Expos, scoring 47 goals in just 21 games.

In between his two seasons with the Expos, Sharpe returned to his homeland to feature for Rochdale, who at the time, were in the Third Division. He played for the club from October 1994 to March 1995. Very little information seems to be available from his time at the club but he did manage a goal against Bury in the Football League Trophy (then called the Auto Windscreens Shield) in February 1995.

By the time he was drafted by Colorado, Sharpe was 27. Unfortunately, he could not carry his goal crazy form into MLS, and left the Rapids after one season where he managed just two goals and two assists.

After leaving the Rapids, Sharpe joined Carolina Dynamo in 1997 but injuries scuppered his chances of a return to the big time and he retired later that year.

Where are they now? I was unable to find any information on Sharpe’s post-playing career.

Aidan Heaneyt
Aidan Heaney
Goalkeeper. New England Revolution. Appearances: 19 Clean sheets: 4

Although he was the only Englishman not to play for the Colorado Rapids in the inaugural season of MLS, that did not prevent goalkeeeper Aidan Heaney from crossing paths with one of his compatriots.

In the seventh game of the season, Heaney lined up against the Rapids, who had Sharpe in their starting line-up.

It took just three minutes for Heaney to be up close and personal with Sharpe, when he charged off his line to deny his fellow Englishman. However, in his haste to deny Sharpe, he handled the ball outside the box and received his marching orders.

Heaney’s red card after just three minutes remained an MLS record for 13 years.

The Newcastle-born shot-stopper joined the Revolution at the age of 26, following a couple of seasons with Greensboro Dynamo in the USISL.

Despite his red card, Heaney went on to make 19 appearances in his only season in MLS, sharing goalkeeping duties with Jim St. Andre.

New England, like Colorado, also failed to make the playoffs and at the end of the season, Heaney was released alongside numerous other players as the Revolution looked to improve on a disappointing first season.

Where are they now? Currently the head coach of University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s soccer team, where he has been since 2001.

Exclusive interview with Loyola Meralco Sparks’ Adam Mitter

I would 100% recommend it [playing abroad] to any British footballer who wants to play more whilst they are younger.

Adam Mitter

In an exclusive for English Players Abroad, I catch-up with 23-year-old defender Adam Mitter, who currently plays his football in the Philippines for Loyola Meralco Sparks.

The former Blackpool youth player is well travelled despite his age, having featured for clubs in Sweden and Australia before the move to Asia.

A ball-playing defender, equally as comfortable as a defensive midfielder, Mitter is of a similar philosophy as Everton and England’s John Stones.

Often the source of many of Loyola’s attacks, his composed play at the heart of their defence creates chances for his own side, whilst denying opportunities for the opposition.

Having started his professional career with Blackpool, Mitter featured for Hibernian before moving to Ange in Sweden and then to West Torrens Birkalla in Australia. He joined Loyola in 2015.

In this exclusive Q&A, the 23-year-old talks about adjusting to life in the Philippines as well playing alongside two of the country’s biggest stars.

English Players Abroad: First of all, moving to the Philippines could be seen as an unusual move for an English footballer, how did the transfer come about?
Adam Mitter: To be honest, when the interest came from the Philippines I didn’t know anything about the place what so ever. The manager here, Simon McMenemy, is Scottish [and] he was in contact with my agent so when he found out I was free he contacted me. We had lengthy discussions and it just went from there really.

EPA: How does the standard in the Philippines compare to the football you’ve played in other countries?
AM: The top four or five teams here are very good. They play very good football and are full of top quality players, Stephan Schröck from the Bundesliga. Martin Steuble from MLS is also playing here. We also have some very good Spanish players playing here.

I think it shows by how well the two Filipino teams, Kaya and Ceres, are doing in the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent to the Europa League) this year. They are both nearing the top of their groups and playing big sides from top Asian countries, such as Malaysia, and getting results. That shows the quality that is here.

EPA: Can you tell us a bit about the time you have spent playing in Australia and Sweden?
AM: Sweden was brilliant for me. It was my first time moving abroad. I was young 19 in fact, but I went to the right type of club (Ange IF). It wasn’t the top tier of Swedish football but it was right at the time. It allowed me to learn and develop as a footballer. I was made captain of the club and held some sort of responsibility at a young age, that helped me to grow to this day. We won the league and got promoted and it was a fantastic year all round. I played under a great manager who helped me with a lot of things, we still keep in contact to this day.

Australia was also a great experience, but a very different one. The style of football was very different from my Blackpool and Swedish days when everything was technical and tactical. Australia was more of a battle, more things in the air. It was a bit like when I was playing in Scotland with Hibs, it’s more physical. It was great to go out there and experience living out there and playing football out there toughened me up, if nothing else.


Highlights of Mitter’s 2015 season with Loyola


 

EPA: How much has it helped having a Scottish manager in charge of Loyola during your time at the club?

AM: Simon has been brilliant for me. Before coming out here he went into great detail about the place; told me the pluses and told me the negatives. He was very honest, and I can’t thank him enough. I’ve loved this experience so much, and it’s mainly down to him. He understands the British mentally. It is [very] different to a Filipino mentality when on the football pitch, so it’s hard for him to try and get a good balance with the British lads when we get a hot head, but we find a way. With his experience and where he has managed previously, he has great knowledge. He’s an excellent manager.

EPA: How have you adjusted to the culture whilst living in the Philippines and how important is football to the locals?
AM: I’ve been lucky with the culture. I live in an area which is very ‘westernised’. Sometimes it feels like living at home except the weather. There are a lot of British people around, everyone speaks English. But it’s not like this in every area of the Philippines so you always have to be mindful.

EPA: What is it like playing alongside James and Phil Younghusband, two of the Philippines’s most famous personalities?
AM: It’s great to have Phil and James in the team with LMS, they both are so humble and down to earth. Two of the nicest guys I have ever come across in football, they would help anyone. For people who have so much in this country, you would never realise. They really are two of the nicest guys.

Loyola line-up
Mitter (top row, second from the right) before a Loyola match

EPA: With the UFL season first approaching, what are your ambitions for the upcoming season?
AM: Let’s not get things mistaken, recently we have massively under achieved. When I first arrived here we won the first cup competition, the PFF Smart National Cup. That set the standards but since then we have fallen short. We finished second in the league last year and were beaten by a very strong Ceres side 1-0 in the semi final of the UFL Cup. This season has started with another disappointment, with being knocked out in the elimination rounds of the UFL Cup. But make no mistake about it, We will come back so much stronger in the league and be pushing to become champions. Meralco deserve that, and expect that.

EPA: Would you encourage more Englishmen to play their football overseas?
AM: 100%. So many English players get stuck playing in the lower leagues in England or semi professional leagues in England, not earning great amounts of money and not getting any life experiences. When, if they look abroad, they can develop their game in a different country playing full time, experiencing things you could only dream of.

I wouldn’t change a thing I have done so far. I’m 23 now and I’ve played so much football and have a great amount of experience. Playing centre-back in England it’s hard to get game time at such a young age, not many managers put there trust in young CB’s. I wasn’t prepared to sit on the bench and watch games, I’m a winner, winners don’t settle for that – that’s why I came abroad. I’ve won things. I’ve played so many games. I’ve improved and matured. I’m now ready to see just how high I can go. I would 100% recommend it to any British footballer who wants to play more whilst they are younger.

EPA: Finally, in your opinion, who is the best player you have ever played with or against?
AM: The best player? Well, getting to train with Blackpool’s first team whilst they where in the Premier league, I have seen some fantastic footballers but honestly, Phil [Younghusband] is right up there. The things he can do on a football pitch is incredible. He could easily go back to England and play at a high level. He has the ability to change a game in a second. I don’t think he realises just how good he is, he’s definitely one of, if not, the best player I have played with.

You can follow Adam on Twitter, @adammitter5

English in Action: March 2016

The main talking points from last month…

New beginnings
March saw several leagues across the globe begin their 2016 seasons. Two of those leagues were MLS and J1 League in America and Japan respectively.

Firstly, Jay Bothroyd has made a dream start in Japan’s top tier. After finishing as the J2 top scorer last season, the former Cardiff City man has made the step-up with newly-promoted Júbilo Iwata look easy. In his first three matches of the season, the 33-year has already notched four goals. His early season goal-scoring exploits have made him an early leader in the goalscoring charts.

Over in the US, no fewer than eleven Englishmen have already featured in the first four weeks of MLS this year.

Dom Dwyer has been carrying on what he does best and was a stand-out performer against Vancouver Whitecaps were he bagged a brace to secure a 2-1 win for Sporting Kansas City.

Elsewhere there have been MLS debuts for DC United’s Rob Vincent and England legend Ashley Cole for LA Galaxy.

America’s third tier, the USL, also commenced this month with former Tottenham Hotspur forward Cameron Lancaster already on the score-sheet for Louisville City this year.

Hungarian adventure
Not many Englishmen have featured in Hungarian football. When Craig Short took over as manager of Hungary’s most prestigious club, Ferencváros, in 2009, he was joined by four compatriots. Sam Wedgbury, Paul Shaw, James Ashmore and Mathew Lowton all featured in Hungary during Short’s stint at the club.

However, since then there has not been an Englishmen to feature in the league (don’t quote me on that), until Nathan Eccleston made the move to Békéscsaba at the end of February.

Since then, the former Liverpool forward who is now 25, has scored one goal in five appearances as his new side battles relegation in Hungary’s top tier.

Romanian jackpot
The past two months have seen Romania become a serious attraction for English footballers as three have made the move to the eastern European country in recent months.

At the end of February, 25-year-old midfielder Ross Jenkins left Crawley Town to join ACS Poli Timişoara, the former club of fellow Englishman Wilson Kneeshaw. Former Watford midfielder Jenkins has made three appearances from the bench since his move east.

Elsewhere, winger Jeffrey Monakana who had a spell with League Two club Bristol Rovers at the start of this season, joined fellow Romanian top tier side Voluntari, although he is yet to make an appearance.

In the country’s second tier, Moses Makinde, who featured for Auerbach in Germany last season, has featured for Metalul Reşiţa. The 23-year-old has made four appearances so far.

Fresh start in Malaysia
After five seasons in the A-League for three different sides but only 27 appearances, defender Brent Griffiths swapped the Central Coast for Pulau Pinang in Malaysia.

The 26-year-old defender has struggled for game time in the past year but has since made three starts for his new side, lasting the entire match in all three.

After five games in the 2016 season, Pulau Pinang sit in mid-table, with one win and two draws.

Third country lucky
After spells in Spain and India failed to yield goal, Jermaine Pennant finally has a goal on foreign soil (he failed to score in European competitions too) for Singapore side Tampines Rovers.

Since the move to Singapore, Pennant has been a key player for Tampines, firing two goals in six games, which has led Tampines to second in the league after four games.

One of his strikes was a sumptuous free-kick, which can be seen in the video below.

April
April is another big month for new beginnings as football begins in Finland, Norway, Sweden and America’s second-tier, the NASL.

 

2015 Review: #1 Liam Ridgewell

1 - Ridgewell

In his first season as the Portland Timbers’ captain, Liam Ridgewell led by example as he guided his side to their first ever MLS Cup success.

Skipper

After joining Portland halfway through their 2014 season, following his release from West Brom, Ridgewell was named as the club’s captain for the upcoming 2015 season.

Despite an upturn in form following the Englishman’s arrival in 2014, the season ended in disappointment for the Timbers as they finished outside the playoff spots.

Although the Timbers suffered a setback missing out on the playoffs that year, Ridgewell gained valuable experience in his new surroundings and that enabled him to set an exemplary example to his team-mates in the 2015 season.

Only two sides conceded less than the Timbers last year in regular season action and the former Birmingham City man had a large part to play in that.

The solid rearguard that the Timbers displayed, which Ridgewell helped to provide, saw the club finish third in the regular season, earning safe passage through to the MLS Cup playoffs.

However, the opening round of the playoffs was anything but safe. The Timbers narrowly defeated Sporting KC on penalties in a shootout where all 22 players took a penalty. Ridgewell calmly dispatched his strike from 12 yards during the mammoth shootout.

Two draws and three wins later, including a goal in the Western Conference final against Dallas, and Ridgewell was lifting the Timbers’ first ever MLS Cup in just their fifth season in the competition.

The 31-year-old finished the season with 37 appearances and also a goal to his name. He missed just three MLS matches all season.

The defender also featured in the CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup, although he was often rested in the cup competitions.


Ridgewell’s playoff goal against Dallas and the unusual celebration which followed…


Homeland

Despite being born in London, Ridgewell spent the entirety of his footballing career in England, prior to the move to the US, in the Midlands.

After leaving West Ham United as a youth player, the ex-England U21 defender went on to make nearly 350 appearances combined for the Midlands clubs Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Brom.

During his time with Birmingham, he won the League Cup in 2011, his only senior honour before joining the Timbers.

Since becoming a fans’ favourite in Portland, Ridgewell has twice returned to England during the off-season. He featured for Wigan Athletic last year and has just returned to the US after a spell with Championship promotion hopefuls Brighton & Hove Albion.

2015 was an exceptional year for Ridgewell. He led by example and guided Portland to their first ever MLS Cup.

2016 will see the defender lead his team-mates through the challenge of retaining a trophy which has never been easy to win twice in a row. The Timbers will be relying on more consistently solid performances from Ridgewell if they are to be victorious again.

2015 Review: #2 James Lawrence

2 - Lawrence

Last year saw James Lawrence complete the league and cup double with AS Trenčín in Slovakia. Not bad for your first season in senior football.

Double dream

Oxfordshire-born Lawrence headed into 2015 with Slovak league and cup ambitions. His side, AS Trenčín, had never won a major honour in their relatively short 23-year existence. However they did finish as runners-up in the 2013-14 season and at the halfway stage of the 2014-15 season, Lawrence and his team-mates were well set in both competitions.

Having established himself in the side, regularly starting at left-back, Lawrence continued where he left off after the long winter break.

His solidly consistent performances throughout the season saw Trenčín head into May 2015 with a cup final to play and the league title within their sights.

The subsequent cup final was a bitter-sweet-bitter experience for the left-back. Starting on the bench, despite having played a crucial role in run to the cup final, Lawrence came on in the second half with the tie locked at 1-1.

The game duly went into extra time, where a further goal for each side saw the game head for the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. Trenčín held their nerve to win the shoot-out and Lawrence had his first ever honour at the age of 22 in his first season as a professional.

Unfortunately, an injury sustained in the cup final would curtail the left-back’s debut season in Slovakia. However, the season was to end of a positive note as Trenčín would go on to secure their first ever Slovakian top tier title and finish the season with the double.


Highlights from the Slovak Cup final, where Lawrence’s side were successful on penalties.


Injury troubles

The rest of 2015 was incredibly frustrating for Lawrence. He was unable to shake off his injury problems until October, thus missing his side’s first every foray into the UEFA Champions League, where Trenčín would go on to be knocked out by Steaua București in the second qualifying round.

However, he made a successful return to the starting line-up, scoring in his side’s 3-0 fourth round cup win over Blava Jaslovské. More pleasingly, he managed the full ninety minutes as his side looked to defend their title.

League minutes have been harder to come by for the 23-year-old this season though. With injury hampering his quest to nail down a starting spot in the line-up, the left-back made just three appearances, all as a substitute, in the league before the start of the winter break began in December.

Education

Before making the move to Slovakia, Lawrence spent five years in Holland honing his skills. Initially with Ajax, the full-back combined the classroom with the changing rooms as he earned an international master’s degree in sports management whilst still playing.

After two years with Ajax, Lawrence left the club but spent three more years in the country. First, he joined Sparta Rotterdam’s under-21 side and then moved on to RKC Waalwijk’s.

Then with the aim of first-team football and with the aid of a contact at former side Ajax, Lawrence secured a move to Trenčín.

2015 finished disappointingly for Lawrence as injury halted the impressive progress he had made in Slovakia. However, the year must still be classed as a success. It was the year AS Trenčín secured their first ever major honours and the Englishman played a major part in that.

2016 will see him attempt to regain his place in the starting XI. The Slovakian league returns from its mammoth winter break at the end of this month, and fully rested, Lawrence will hopefully get a run of games as Trenčín look well placed to defend the titles they achieved last season.