Match previews

Preview: Union at Portland Timbers

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union at Portland Timbers
What: MLS Season Opener
Where: Providence Park, Portland, OR, USA
When: 10:30pm EST, Saturday March 8
Watch: CSN, MLS Live
Referee: Hilario Grajeda; Linesmen: Ian Anderson, Baboucarr Jallow; Fourth Official: Baldomero Toledo

Here’s a surprising fact to start the 2014 PSPreview season: Those Timbers of Portland? They good. Real good.

And at home, they’re even better.

In 2013, the Portland Timbers gave up 11 home goals. Five of those came in the first two home games of the year: A 3-3 tie against New York and a 2-1 loss to Montreal. After that rough March, the Timbers did not give up another home tally until a 2-1 win over Los Angeles in mid-July. Just to be clear: Between March 9 and July 13, the Portland Timbers never let their own net ripple in Jeld-Wen Park (now renamed Providence Park).

So for all the work the Philadelphia have done in the offseason to supplement the midfield and build a squad that can retain the ball and control games… That will just have to wait for New England. Only Montreal, Real Salt Lake, and Vancouver earned any points in Portland last year, and only the first two did it while scoring.

To leave the Pacific Northwest with a crooked number in the points column, the Philadelphia have to do three things: Defend as a team, counterattack smartly, and make the most of set pieces.

Defend as a team

First, a few numbers to worry you:

  • Portland was 12-0-6 when scoring first last year.
  • Philadelphia was 1-10-4 when allowing the first goal.
  • Portland scored 34 of their 54 goals (63%) in the second half in 2013.
  • Philadelphia allowed 31 of 44 goals (70%) against in the second half.

Playing team defense is tough at any point in the game. But doing it late, after substitutions have changed the initial formation and legs don’t have that first half spring, is even more difficult. The Union clearly struggled to keep opponents out once they made changes, giving up 25 goals in the final half hour of matches in 2013.

Against a team like Portland that wants to own the ball but has no problem playing quickly if space is available, Philly needs to keep a very tight shape, and every player on the field needs to know what space they are giving up and what space they are closing down. This means wingers can’t chase the ball from player to player but instead must rediscover their place in the defensive shape as soon as the ball is lost. High pressure is smart pressure, not any pressure.

Portland’s possession game is not built on simply holding the ball: It’s about moving it. The Timbers’ ultimate goal is to pull defenders out of place so the back line will be out of sorts when a playmaker gets on the ball. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, Portland’s two best chance creators in 2013, generated about 48% of the opportunities to come off their feet between the base of the center circle and the top of the opponent’s D.

In other words: That is the space the Union cannot give up.

Easier said than done, however. The Timbers are banking on pulling the Union midfield out of position, then putting the ball into that central area in front of the defense. This forces Amobi Okugo and Austin Berry to decide to either pressure or retreat. If they retreat, there’s the space Valeri, Nagbe, and new signing Gaston Fernandez need to create. If they pressure, a solid back line looks jagged pretty darn quick.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 6.04.38 AM

Urruti checks into the soft space in front of the defense, dragging Berry or pulling Okugo forward. When he receives the ball Urruti drops it to Valeri, facing upfield. He can find Nagbe in the space vacated by the striker.

Provided he’s healthy enough to go, Valeri, Nagbe, Fernandez, and Max Urruti will all rotate into that soft area in front of the defense. This movement is designed to keep the defense moving and the opposition back four uncoordinated and chasing. Often, it isn’t the person who receives the ball in that space that is dangerous so much as the person who fills the space that first player just left. Caleb Porter has been playing around with where to put his big four attackers, but don’t expect much change from last season when the dust settles. “I thought in the second half, with Valeri at the ’10’ and Gaston on the left and “D” on the right…I thought that felt a notch better,” Porter recently said. “There will be some games where we rotate them. It’s nice to have that flexibility.”

Philly’s midfield triangle: Which way should it point?
Inverted triangle midfield

Inverted triangle midfield

The Union will likely stack the midfield with Brian Carroll, Mo Edu and Vincent Nogueira. How these players line up will say a lot about how Philly intends to handle the all-action Portland front four. Carroll is most comfortable at the base of the midfield, roaming around, collecting loose balls, and filling gaps. This would push Edu and Nogueira slightly forward to break up play through the center of the park.

Against Portland, John Hackworth may elect to pull Edu deeper to form a base pairing with Carrol, leaving Nogueira to fill space in the middle of the park and force play wide. Keeping Edu deeper is all about protecting that zone in front of the back four that the Timbers love to exploit.

Triangle midfield

Triangle midfield

As good as Amobi Okugo has been as a central defender, he still plays with a bit of midfielder in him. When strikers check back to the ball, he likes to follow closely and put in a hard, here-I-am tackle. Keeping a two-man shield in front of Okugo encourages him to play a bit more conservatively. If he chases Urruti or anyone else into midfield, the Timbers will be ruthless with the space he leaves behind.

The proper sucker punch

Scoring at Portland is tough, but it’s not impossible. Diego Chara and Will Johnson will over-commit forward and leave spaces that the Union will have to exploit with speed and precision. Successful counterattacks will involve a lot of quick, vertical movement with the ball on the ground: Edu or Nogueira out to the wingers to take space and look to put McInerney through. New signing Cristian Maidana will have a few chances to show that he brings a new dimension to the Union wide game by offering an outlet and quickly picking his head up to target McInerney with through balls on the ground. That type of service is exactly what the young striker needs.

Jack McInerney was made for games like this. His speed and smart runs can give center backs like Pa Modou Kah and new signing Norberto Paparatto fits. Both players are positionally sound but won’t break speed records. If the Union get them backing up, McInerney can find lanes and, at the very least, scare the Timbers into playing more conservatively.

The passing range of Amobi Okugo is another advantage the Union can utilize to spring McInerney. Okugo can hit a long pass as well as any centerback in MLS. If he recovers a ball in midfield, McInerney needs to be ready to roll.

Set pieces

Caleb Porter brought Norberto Paparatto in from Argentina because he wanted a strong set piece defender to pair with Kah. At 6-3, Paparatto has the size and intelligence to close a major hole in Portland’s defense. Of the 33 goals the Timbers gave up last season, 14 came from crosses, corners, and indirect free kicks. The seven headed goals the Timbers allowed underplays the trouble they had clearing balls in the box. Andrew Jean-Baptiste arrived with a reputation as an aerial presence, but winning 55 of 88 aerial challenges was only enough to earn a one way trip to Chivas USA in the offseason.

The Union need to challenge Paparatto and the Portland defense on every set piece opportunity. Poor balls in should be harshly judged, as any chance on net from a dead ball will deal the Timbers a heavy mental blow. The team knows why Porter went searching for a big, new center back. If they struggle early against set pieces, the Union have a chance to pounce on one of the only parts of the Portland game the players are not confident about.

Prediction: Portland 1-1 Philadelphia

Come on. I’m not jaded enough to go loss in game one.

Portland scored 13 goals in the first fifteen minutes of the second half last year. If the Union can make it to the 60th minute without falling behind, they won’t just fly home happy. They will also wake up to an unshaven horde of (and other) writers raving about how the Union are every bit as “for real” as they (the writers) predicted.


  1. Oh, seeing the words “Preview” makes my heart sing. Thanks for giving me specific things to look for in the run of play. +1 on the score.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    I would KILL for a draw in this game. GO UNION!
    Great preview by the way! Good stuff!!

  3. Smackey the Frog says:

    Almost there, my good peoples!

  4. I’m stinkin giddy!!! Google it…

  5. buzzkill_ed says:

    This is a tough matchup, but it’s probably the best possible time to play Portland. Scoring first didn’t matter the last time we opened up in Portland. I’ll guess Portland 2 – 1 Union.

  6. I’d be content with a 0-0 tie similar to the one at PPL last July. Giving MacMath and the defense a boost of confidence in the first game is more important right now than showing that our offense can work.

  7. JediLos117 says:

    I predict a certain Union forward will pout.
    Portland 2-0

  8. With the possibility of scab refs for this weekend, this might be the only time I would actually be happy to see Grajeda calling a Union game.

  9. 1-1 at Portland?! You’re dreaming, dude. Timbers win 2-0 as the Union’s new midfield AND defense take some time to gel while playing in an opposition fortress against one of MLS’ best teams.

    But that score line won’t be indicative of the way the season will go.

  10. I have to agree with some others that 1-1 vs this team on the road seems optimistic. It will take some time for the Union to gel. This preview was great though, looking forward to these all year.

  11. YO. We are going to win this game.

    MLS is crazy in the first three weeks. Think on it. Also, the U are walking the line between “nobody believes in us” theory and the need for the journalism gods to force us to win so every journalist can be tempted by the same narratives come Monday.

    • i like the way you think

    • This would be awesome but even a tie against a top quality side like Portland is a very good result on the road.

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      They are also walking to the airport and flying a couple thousand miles into a different timezone that their bodies will not be adjusted too. MLS teams travelling extreme distances with time zone changes do not fare well on the road. 2 zip Portland and #hactics on full display as the U play some of the finest bunker ball this country has seen since Bob Bradley.

  12. The Black Hand says:

    Hate seeing Jack Mac up top alone!!!

  13. Tremendous analysis Adam.
    UNION 3 – Ke$ha/Pitbull 2

  14. I am excited to see what we are all about this year. I don’t know our team good enough yet to make a prediction. I do think if Mac and Mc play like studs, we will win!
    Go Union!

  15. Really really excellent breakdown and preview, great stuff.
    I think everyone, including Portland are just waiting for the bunker of all bunkers from the U. Instead I think we should come out and push the game and attack to start off. Let Carroll sit back and effectively have a 5 man defense but otherwise push it, take it too them, make THEM lose shape.

  16. I’m in for a long night tomorrow. My dauaghter and I have Sixers tickets for the 7:30 game. We get to come home from that likely drubbing and tune into this match. I’m hopeful they’ll be competitive, but I think there’s just too much going against them here – travel, playing a good team, not having enough time to gel, etc. I see Portland coming out as 3-1 winners. Goal comes from Maidana; one Portland goal off a set piece, two from the run of play.

  17. Excellent article, Adam! I appreciate your insightful analysis!

    C’mon the U!

  18. I’ve been hearing rumors that the Union would like to convert Wheeler to a defender and put him on the back line somewhere. If there is willingness on Wheeler’s part to make that change; then I like the idea!

    He’d be imposing back there!!

  19. Just like you called it, Adam. Nice job. Did you also think it would be three minutes (cough cough) of added time in the second half?

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