Match previews

Preview: Union at Portland Timbers

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union (4th in the East, 41 points, 11-10-8) at Portland Timbers (6th in the West, 38 points, 10-11-8)
What: Regular season game
Where: Providence Park
When: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 6 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Chris Penso; Linesmen: Mike Rottersman, Adam Garner; Fourth Official: Daniel Radford

After dropping two points at home by giving up a late goal, Philadelphia Union travel to Portland to face a team that is excellent at both scoring late and winning at home. I know. Not the most positive start.

The Timbers have scored nearly a third of their goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, and they are tied with New York Energy Drinks for most points at home in Major League Soccer. They average a healthy 5.9 shots on goal per game at home, and sport a +12 goal differential at home (which is wild considering Caleb Porter’s men have a -1 goal differential overall).

In short, Philadelphia Union are in for an incredibly tough match. But there are are a few things going in their favor.

First, Portland traveled a lot this week. And when they arrived in Costa Rica for their CONCACAF Champions League match against Saprissa, they started Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri, and Diego Chara. Adi and Valeri both scored (though the former left early with an injury), but the Timbers still fell 4-2. Now they return to Portland with tired, potentially hurting stars and an absolute need to defeat the Union. After playing Philly at home, Portland closes the season with three of four matches on the road. And Jamie Goldberg told the KYW/PSP podcast this week Porter’s men have struggled mightily away from the friendly confines, with only 11 goals(!) this season.

Second, the Union may have gotten a tip on how to approach the Timbers from Real Salt Lake last week.

Nagbe does it best

Darlington Nagbe does a lot of things very well. He moves the ball quickly and efficiently, he gets out of tight spaces, he advances play, and he is responsible defensively. There’s plenty more, but the important takeaway is that this diverse skill set is both a gift and a curse. It means Caleb Porter (to his team’s detriment) can play Nagbe on the wing. It also means Nagbe can get drawn into deep positions if the opposition holds the ball well in Portland’s half.

In the first half of their match at Portland last weekend, Real Salt Lake found out just how dynamic Nagbe could be. He was a force running through the center, pulling in defenders and creating space for Diego Valeri to create in the channels. It was the type of all-around performance that has become increasingly valuable as more teams come around to the realization that they need to gum up the center to compete.

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A player like Nagbe (sometimes called a “needle” player, because he can dribble through tight spaces and break through lines), provides a route through well-organized man-oriented pressure.

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RSL’s response to Nagbe was interesting: Jeff Cassar pulled Jordan Allen and plopped the evergreen Javier Morales into midfield. Almost immediately, the visitors were able to hold more possession in Portland’s half.

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This forced Nagbe to take up deeper positions and meant that RSL had the numbers in midfield to pass around Diego Chara’s insistent pressure.

Furthermore, it enabled Salt Lake to put better pressure on Portland’s transitions, stamping them out early with a mixture of positioning and, let’s say, hard-hitting defense.

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Second half fouls by RSL against Portland. Lots of contact before Portland could get moving forward.

Second half fouls by RSL against Portland. Lots of contact before Portland could get moving forward.

This is the potentially useful tactic RSL exposed last weekend, though it is one that is both referee-dependent and outside the Union’s wheelhouse.

Playing with punch

Prior to this season, Jim Curtin emphasized that while he didn’t want his team to take dumb fouls, he wouldn’t mind a bit if they took a few more strategic ones. The Union haven’t taken the bait. After committing a league-low 11 fouls/game in 2015, Philly is up to… 11 fouls per game this year. That number will likely need to be exceeded by some margin if the Union want to snuff out Portland’s transition game.

The Timbers can be effective in transition by putting immediate pressure on goal or by simply pushing a defense deep to create space in midfield for Nagbe and Valeri. Above, you can see just how quickly the Timbers move up the pitch after clearing the ball to Adi, even when he is fighting off multiple defenders.

Providing quick width in transition is key for the Timbers to create spaces in the center for their studs. Caleb Porter accepts Vytas’ limitations at left back because the left back is far better than Chris Klute at breaking quickly and moving the ball below the box. Getting in deep forces a defensive line to drop, which means that Adi becomes more than a mere aerial threat; he can post up defenders and receive the ball into feet.

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Additionally, it means more of the attacking half is available for Diego Valeri, who is an acknowledged expert at breaking through lines.

RSL’s bully policy is notable for who it targeted. Instead of going after Adi, Valeri, and Nagbe — players who an official would expect to be targeted — the Claret and Blue looked to disrupt play one pass earlier by bumping the guys making the first pass to start transitions. Diego Chara and Darren Mattocks received the brunt of RSL’s 15 second half fouls, 12 of which occurred before the Timbers could get over the halfway line.

Union plan?

Philly needs to recognize the value in RSL’s approach. With swiftly advancing fullbacks, Portland can pin a team deep for extended periods of time thanks to Valeri and Nagbe’s smart movement, which ensures that the ball circulates quickly and efficiently. If the Union get stuck near their own goal for long possessions, it will be difficult to keep Adi off the board.

Philly not only needs to be physical in transition defense, but also circulate the ball when they have it to bring their own wide players into the game and create separation between the Timbers’ midfield and striker.

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Jim Curtin complimented Warren Creavalle’s passing in his midweek presser, and either Creavalle or Brian Carroll will need to act as an axis that quickly switches play so the Union can push Alejandro Bedoya forward into the center and let Barnetta drift wide and create triangles on the wings.

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Furthermore, the Union need to follow Curtin’s advice and make CJ Sapong and Fabian Herbers more dynamic. Above, you can see how Herbers is willing to move inside, and how that makes it difficult for the back line to step forward and close the passing lane to Sapong. Generating more opportunities like that will come from Sapong being willing to slip wide earlier as a transition option. For all his flaws, Cristian Maidana knew how to find a wide pocket behind advanced fullbacks to start transitions. Sapong needs to — occasionally — occupy similar spaces. This leaves the center backs with nobody to mark. As they drift, Herbers can move toward the center to ensure that Sapong is isolated wide, and he can make deep, early runs to force the defense deep.

Finally, Philly needs, needs to hold a better defensive line. They cannot let their center backs be drawn deep, but instead need to force midfielders to make early decisions by holding their line.

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Above you can see how RSL holds a strong line at the top of the box, which means that if Nagbe doesn’t find the right pass through the defense immediately, he is passing to a man offsides, and, additionally, now faces an organized defense that won’t let him through. Philly has struggled to do this all season, and they need to improve before the playoffs.

Prediction: Portland 1-1 Union

The prediction completely depends on whether Adi is healthy and starts. If he can’t go, Porter will be forced to rely on Jack McInerney, who has cooled considerably after a fast start.

McInerney is a threat in the box, but in a far different way from the Timbers’ key man up top. McInerney needs to lose defenders and get free, while Adi is happy occupying bodies and creating space for others (provided he gets his chances too, of course).

There are two major lineup questions for the Union: Stick with Herbers over Ilsinho? And: re-insert Brian Carroll? Curtin hinted that CJ Sapong will remain up top, and Herbers’ needs to continue on the right so he and Sapong can improve their exchanges and become more dynamic. Even if Herbers’ final ball wasn’t there last weekend, his workrate and movement should still be preferred to Ilsinho for 60-70 minutes. The Creavalle/Carroll decision is more of a toss up. Carroll is a far better transition defender, but Creavalle can track Valeri’s movement and attempt to take the Argentinian out of the match.

No matter how the Union come out, this should be a fantastic match that both teams see as a must-win. As good as Portland has been at home, they do not offer the same consistent play as New York and Toronto FC, the two teams Philly faces next. The Union need to play solid transition defense and convert chances. But the Timbers are a threat until the final whistle. This will be an exciting, if potentially physical and ugly, MLS match.


  1. Darlington Nagbe. Best player made in the USA. Who knows what his upside could be… too bad he’s so young.
    I see ZERO points coming from this trip… which further highlights how awful giving up that late goal to Montreal was.

    • I get where you’re coming from on the zero, but I think the Union approach to games this year will pay dividends on a trip like this. There will be no intent to bunker, they will attempt to assert themselves, there will be goals.
      They may not win THIS match, but I think over a span of 3 games they can steal a win. I’d rather that game be against NYRB honestly, but i’ll take it anywhere.
      When the union play with a proper #8 (bedoya or Nogs), they have been shut out only once all season, first game against Dallas. we will score

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    More than one would be manna from heaven. Montreal has a game in hand over us.
    Would love to know whether Edu was on the plane this morning. see Tweet referenced below. Change of the plan announced Wednesday that they would leave Thursday.

    It might mean Creavalle needed rest for his nick and that Carroll and Edu will split the game minutes 50:50.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Just found a tidbit.
    Ray Gaddis is the only Union players with 4 yeelow cards accumulated.
    Diego Charra and Liam Ridgwell are the Timbers players on 4.
    Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado are also for Toronto.
    Conor Lade has four for Red Bulls, but is out for the season with an ACL tear.

  4. This is just the kind of game the Union will probably win. They always seem to win a game or two like this. And it’s the way this league tends to work. I think the mid-week game for Portland in Costa Rica will help keep them less than sharp. We need to beware the late goal from a Jack Mac in the 80th minute.

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    draw seems appropriate.

  6. For what it’s worth, Steel Communications has released a list of Union players available to the Steel for Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.
    Maurice Edu is the first name on the list. the others are: Cole Missimo, Taylor Washington and Eric Ayuk, Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones, and Matt Jones the goalkeeper.
    Academy players are not yet known. Since Akinyode will be on the bench, Anthony Fontana’s role would be as a sub in the midfield. Last time that would have happened he went with the U-18s to get 90 minute instead. My hope is that Justin McMaster gets to play with the Steel in spite of Missimo’s presence, given how good the combination of Ayuk, McMaster and Corey Burke looked last week, but we’ll see.
    I assume Matt Jones is getting a last tune-up before the Steel’s season ends. If I am correct, next weekend might perhaps see John McCarthy do the same.

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