Match previews

Preview: Union vs Portland Timbers

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Portland Timbers
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: 7:30 pm; Saturday, July 20
Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Ricardo Salazar; Linesmen: Brian Poeschel, Kevin Klinger; Fourth official: Ted Unkel

The Portland Timbers are 2-1-7 on the road this season. That one loss was two weeks ago against a Columbus team that caught the Timbers without four players who have accounted for 10 goals and 12 assists in 2013. The team that every pundit loves to love will be near full strength when they arrive at PPL Park Saturday to face the mercurial Philadelphia Union.

Shape matters

Portland is the current darling of MLS. New head coach Caleb Porter has not reinvented the wheel so much as he has figured out how to make it roll better. That is to say, Porter is one of the first American coaches to tame the highly fit athletes that arrive in NCAA programs and turn them into intelligent soccer players. This ability opened an opportunity for Porter to go pro, and Portland’s desire to win provided him with a set of players tailored to the style he wants to play.

To Porter’s credit, he has gotten his points across quicker than anybody imagined he would.

The best compliment you can give the Portland Timbers is that nobody wants to play them. For a team like Philadelphia that has struggled to play a full 90 minutes, the Timbers are a nightmare. Not only do the northwesterners go all out from first whistle to last, but they maintain the same style of play throughout.

When the Union are behind after the 60th minute, the parade of offensive substitutions begins. Suddenly the counterattack is the only option, and the midfield is emptier than the sign-in sheet at the Peter Nowak fan club meetings.

The Timbers will rarely leave space on the pitch. Ahead, behind, or even, Caleb Porter wants his team to get the ball back. And fast.

This defensive pressure is something that many MLS teams attempt. Most squads come up against a basic problem: How to convert high pressure into offense? The Union have certainly dealt with this issue under John Hackworth, with the latest solution relieving Danny Cruz of regular defensive responsibilities in the defensive half of the pitch and adjusting Gaddis and Parke accordingly.

Portland has dealt with the issue in a similar but more effective manner. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe are established outlets, and they check wide to find space and allow Will Johnson to step up and push the team forward as a unit. By utilizing these playmakers in wide spaces, the Timbers can push play down the center defensively and pick their spots going forward.

To counter the Porter system, the Union need to keep a solid shape in the midfield and commit to pushing the attack as a unit. The Timbers count on their ability to control possession, and if the Union leave gaps in midfield, the Timber transition game will flourish. This is that rare instance where the best defense really is a good offense: Commit forward, defend high and early, and Portland will struggle to move forward in possession.

Union Setup

Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of the Chivas win last week was the way it opened up a familiar debate about where Michael Farfan belongs on the field (or off it).

Fabinho’s good play on the left planted the seed of a Farfanbinho wing combo that returns the former rookie of the year candidate to the role in which he excelled. Adding Fabinho, a natural left back, to Gaddis’ side should provide the young fullback with the defensive support he needs.

Fabinho on the left re-establishes Le Toux in an out-and-out striking role. At this point, Le Toux has shown that he is fully capable of performing a support role but is prone to the occasional anonymous match. With a wealth of options on the bench, this is perfectly acceptable.

Prediction: Union 2-2 Timbers

The Union are facing a difficult opponent at home, and last year they wouldn’t have stood a chance. This is a wonderful opportunity for the 2013 team to prove that they can defend their home turf against the best road team MLS has to offer. Philly’s only playoff season was built on the foundation of Fortress PPL. This team is headed to the same destination.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    2-2? Adam, shouldn’t you have been more specific with the details of the 2-2 draw? Like maybe the Union are playing one of the three teams they’ve never beaten and are ahead 2-1 with a red card putting Portland a man down. The 90th minute comes and the 4th official holds up a “5” on the stoppage time board….Need I say more?

  2. I don’t quite get the union setup paragraph. How does fabinhos arrival affect where Farfan and Le Toux will play? In my mind, he would just replace Cruz. Le Toux can’t go back to forward, Jackmac has returned and Le Toux has been playing mostly well at mid. Unless Hack goes through with his threats not to start Mcinerney, in which case we’ll probably see Fernandes again. Anyway, this match could get ugly, unless our defense and our midfield step it up. Hoping for a result.

    • John Ling says:

      So how about this:
      Macmath; Williams, Okugo, Parke, Fabinho; Carroll; Le Toux, Kleberson, Farfan; McInerney, Casey
      That assumes Kleberson is fit, of course. And not back in the dog house.
      The idea is to pair Farfan and Fabinho together and see what sort of magic they can make down the left side.

      • Although Fabinho is supposed to be a LB, I don’t think he is physical enough to make it as a defender in the MLS. This is most likely the reason he was bounced from two A-League clubs in two years before coming here. His best position in this league will be at LM.
        Still, Farfan and Fabinho on the left could be a great combo.

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