- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The emphasis for the Portland Timbers in the offseason was on shoring up the defense.

Known for its defense in its first season under coach Caleb Porter in 2013, Portland struggled last season, allowing 52 goals.

The Timbers ended up finishing 12-9-13 and just out of the playoffs. The last spot in the Western Conference wasn’t decided until after the final game: A Vancouver victory over Seattle kept Portland out of the postseason.

But the Timbers showed promise in the final weeks of the season, especially defensively. The team shut out opponents four times in their last six games and went 304 minutes without conceding a goal to finish the year. It helped that the offense was clicking with 22 goals in the final 10 games.

“I was animated, more than I usually am, with the defending,” Porter said this week. “Because I don’t like having a bad defensive team. I hated it. I was a defensive player so I take pride in that.”

Portland made two keys moves in the offseason to help carry over their defensive momentum: They traded for veteran defender Nat Borchers and signed Ghanaian goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey.

Borchers, a two-time MLS defender of the year, was a fixture for Real Salt Lake over the past seven seasons and was a key contributor on the 2009 MLS Cup-winning team.

Borchers joins former Premier League middle back Liam Ridgewell, and outside backs Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell.

Kwarasey, who was born in Norway and played in that country’s top league, replaces Donovan Ricketts, who was taken by Orlando City in the expansion draft. Just 27, he started in goal for Ghana in last year’s World Cup.

“We started winning more when we started defending better (last season). It was a real point of emphasis at the end of the year,” Porter said. “I think we looked good at the end of the year, but also in the preseason I wanted to make sure that side of things didn’t slip. So we’ve definitely addressed it and I think we’ve corrected it.”

The defense will get its first real test on Saturday night when the Timbers open the season at home against Borcher’s former team, Real Salt Lake.

RSL finished 15-8-11 last season, knocked out by the eventual MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals.

Portland is 2-5-4 against Real Salt Lake since joining MLS in 2011, including a 1-1-3 mark at Providence Park.

“I think we like where we’re at,” Porter said. “I’m really pleased with the defensive side of things. That was the big question from everyone. I don’t think it’s a question now, if you look at how we played in the preseason, how we defended, how organized we were.”

But the team has also been stung by injuries heading into the 2015 campaign. The most recent was midfielder Ben Zemanski, who had surgery to repair a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Monday. He is expected to miss at least five months.

Timbers captain Will Johnson remains out because of the broken leg he sustained last season, but he could rejoin the team three or four games into the season.

Veteran Jack Jewsbury is expected to take Zemanski’s place in the starting lineup until Johnson returns.

Portland will also be missing playmaker Diego Valeri, who tore his ACL in the final match last season. Valeri led the Timbers last year with 11 goals and 14 assists.

He is not expected to return until May.

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