Set pieces vital to Union's chances in 2012 opener

Defending free kicks has been preseason focus, says Nowak

Sheanon Williams vs. Portland

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Union manager Peter Nowak knows it won’t be easy opening the 2012 regular season in Portland, a notoriously tough road environment.

He also knows his team is capable of stealing road points in Monday’s season opener (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes).

“I think they were pretty good their first year, and they’re looking to make their second year better than the first one,” Nowak told reporters during Wednesday’s weekly press conference at PPL Park. “We expect that it’s going to be a very tight game, like we played last year. One goal can decide it, one way or the other.”

John Spencer’s Timbers had an extremely successful preseason. They went 4-0-3, scoring 11 goals and conceding just three. Portland scored just 40 goals in 2011, the club’s debut season in MLS.

“They were very successful in the preseason,” added Nowak. “They didn’t give up many goals. As I said, one goal can decide the game. It’s a very short field and a very tight field, and the game is going to be fast as well so we have to be prepared for that.”

Portland and Philadelphia played 180 minutes of physical soccer last year. Just one goal was scored in those 180 minutes and it came from a Timbers set piece in the second half of the Union’s trip to the Rose City.

The Timbers were one of the best teams in the league on free kicks last year, scoring goal after goal in the early part of the season. The Union struggled to defend free kicks last year and focused on that weakness in preseason training. 

“You know, as I said, there’s going to be a mistake here or there,” explained Nowak. “I think we got generally bigger this year with Porfirio Lopez and Gabriel Gomez. They’re a couple of guys who can (defend set pieces). So we’re working on that, and we’ll see.”

Nowak reiterated that set piece defending involves all 11 players on the field. From initial service to second chances to clearance, everyone has to take responsibility.

“We need to focus on preventing (goals), instead of just concentrating on the target guys,” Nowak said. “We have to make sure the guys who are around the area – targets three, four and five – that they’re also covered. So it’s not only a job for a few players, it’s a job for the whole team. We worked on that, we’re going to continue to work on that, and we’re going to try to prevent those goals.”

JELD-WEN Field is smaller than other MLS pitches, which only increases the prevalence – and, in turn, the significance – of set piece situations. The dimensions at PPL Park run 120 x 75 yards, while Portland’s turf field is 110 x 70 yards.

Preventing and defending dead ball opportunities may well be the key to earning a positive result to start the season.