Scouting report: Breakdown of what Portland has to offer in Saturday's season opener
Going into 2014, we all knew that a road trip to Portland was on the calendar.
It might very well be the most difficult road game the Union will play this season.
So why not do it now? Why not play the Timbers on day one instead of flying cross-country to catch them in mid-season form?
That's the way I see it.
Philadelphia opens the year against a Portland squad (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet) that it has never defeated. The Union are 0-2-2 all-time against the Timbers and have scored just one goal in those four total games.
At Providence Park (formerly Jeld-Wen Field), the Union has been on the losing end of 1-0 and 3-1 results in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The team did not travel to Oregon last season and will play for the first time Saturday on the turf field that was widened by four yards at the beginning of 2013.
Portland scored 53 goals in 2013 and had the third best offense in the entire league.
Caleb Porter has done a phenomenal job at installing his 4-3-3 in the Rose City. His team will enjoy long spells of possession while interchanging fluidly all over the field.
Graphic: A glance at how the possible Starting XI could shape for the Portland Timbers in Saturday's season opener
Start with the first choice midfield of Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Will Johnson. Valeri is the attacking pivot, Johnson enjoys a box-to-box role, and Chara tends to sit deeper and defend. But the trio swap those positions very well, moving to accommodate different situations on the field. They have an excellent understanding of how to rotate and switch within the system.
You'll probably see an attacking corps that includes Darlington Nagbe, plus the Argentine pair of Maximiliano Urruti and newcomer Gaston Fernandez.
Urruti and Fernandez are a bit of a unknown quantity right now. This will be Urruti's first full season with Portland, and the 23 year old will be tasked with starting in the center forward role. Fernandez has a solid resume and looked every bit like a crafty midfielder in the preseason games against San Jose and Vancouver.
There's some good depth in the attack. Also know that Kalif Alhassan will start his fair share of games this year, and Freddie Piquionne returns for another year as the team's second string center forward. The club also added former Seattle winger Steve Zakuani in re-entry and drafted Maryland product Schillo Tshuma in January.
Finding success with the likes of Valeri, the Timbers went right back to Argentina for defensive reinforcement.
Norberto Paparatto comes to Portland via Club Atletico Tigre, a team he captained and represented more than 125 times on the field. He's a big guy too, standing six-foot-four and possessing all of the necessary physical tools to compete in MLS.
(If you're keeping count, I'm projecting four Argentinians in the Portland starting XI come Saturday. )
He'll lineup next to Pa Modou Kah, the no-nonsense Gambian-Norwegian defender who signed with the club midway through 2013. Other center back options include the reliable Futty Danso and former Chivas USA defender Rauwshan McKenzie.
Finally, the fullback spots are crucial to Portland's system. Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury will push incredibly high into the opposing half of the field. The Timbers are probably the best team in the entire league at getting their fullbacks involved in the attack. That's a hallmark of the 4-3-3 system, but it's only effective if your forwards stay high, pressure defenders, and give your outside backs space to occupy on the flanks.
Possible Starting XI: Ricketts (GK), Jewsbury, Paparatto, Kah, Harrington, Chara, Johnson, Valeri, Fernandez, Nagbe, Urruti (4-3-3)
What are your thoughts on this new look Portland side? Leave a comment below.
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at email@example.com