The wait is over.
The Union begin season three of MLS play Monday on national television against the Portland Timbers (9:30 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN Deportes).
In a tough opening assignment, manager Peter Nowak’s side will travel to face a John Spencer side that went unbeaten in preseason play (outscoring opponents 11-3) and made a late push for a playoff spot last season.
Though the Timbers didn’t reach the postseason in their debut year, they posted a strong home record of 9-5-3. They’re tough to beat at JELD-WEN Field, where the raucous Timbers Army hover right on top of opposing teams. Thousands of fans came out to watch Portland play Chivas USA, San Jose, and Swedish side AIK in a four-team preseason tournament last week.
The Union lost to Portland 1-0 at JELD-WEN last year when Mamadou Danso headed home a second half set piece from Jack Jewsbury. The return leg was played to a 0-0 draw at PPL Park.
The Timbers made wholesale changes in the offseason, most notably trading Kenny Cooper to New York and signing Scotland striker Kris Boyd. Boyd was a Houston target, but landed in Portland after the Timbers sent the Dynamo a first round draft pick in exchange for Boyd’s negotiating rights. The former Rangers man scored more than 100 goals for the Glasgow side from 2006 to 2010. He’s nursing a right ankle sprain but is listed as probable for Monday.
Another addition was Colombian Hanyer Mosquera. The defender made the switch from La Equidad in his native country.
The club signed Jose Adolfo Valencia as a young Designated Player, but Valencia required knee surgery in the offseason and will be mostly inactive this season. The club also drafted former UCONN defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste and signed 18-year-old American Charles Renken.
Portland ran a typical 4-4-2 formation for the majority of the 2011 season, with Cooper playing alongside Jorge Perlaza. Boyd paired the Colombian striker against AIK and we’re likely to see that pairing throughout the year. Perlaza is probable for Monday with achilles tendinitis.
The Timbers also have Bright Dike, a physical striker who impressed in preseason with quality play in the final third. Second-year rising star Darlington Nagbe is also in the mix, capable of playing as a forward or midfielder. Nagbe has incredible upside and figures to be a key player for Portland as soon as this season. He's also listed as probable with a right ankle sprain.
The offense is spurred by central midfielders Diego Chara and Jewsbury. Chara, a DP, plays in a more advanced role and will attack from his central position. Jewsbury tends to sit a bit deeper, though he’s not necessarily a holding midfielder. “Captain Jack,” as he’s been nicknamed, can distribute from behind Chara and play accurate balls left and right, switching the point of attack. Portland’s captain represented the Timbers in the 2011 MLS All-Star Game.
Spencer has a number of options wide, most notably Kalif Alhassan. The young Ghanaian assisted six times last season from the left flank. Other wide options include Rodney Wallace and Eric Alexander. Sal Zizzo played on the flank last season, but he’s out due to ACL surgery.
James Marcelin is a bigger player who features in a more typical holding midfield role. New signing Franck Songo’o is another option in the middle.
John Spencer has four big bodies on the backline, but injuries will limit his options in this game. Mamadou "Futty" Danso is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured foot and David Horst is recovering from hip surgery. That leaves Hanyer Mosquera and Eric Brunner as your likely starters.
The Timbers will miss the height and physicality of Danso and Horst, who stand at 6-3 and 6-4 respectively. Union fans are well aware of Danso’s aerial ability off set pieces. Horst was difficult to move and extremely physical in last year’s return leg.
Brunner is the most experienced of the bunch, and played the most minutes of any Portland defender last year. He also stands 6-4 and knows how to latch onto set pieces.
At the fullback positions, you’d expect to see Mike Chabala on the right and Lovel Palmer on the left. That was Spencer’s pairing in the team’s final preseason game.
Former D.C. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins stands between the pipes for the Timbers. His numbers were consistent among MLS ‘keepers in 2011. He posted nine shutouts with a 1.31 goals against average.
Philadelphia did not score against the Timbers in two tries last year, the only team that managed the feat against the Union.
Keys to the Game
Portland were one of the best set piece teams in the league last year and there’s no reason to think that will be any different in ‘12
With Jewsbury whipping in free kicks on a smaller turf field, conceding a foul anywhere in the Union half could be a liability. With the size on this Timbers squad, Jewsbury has a number of targets.
Philadelphia struggled to defend set pieces last season and that weakness ultimately unraveled the team in the playoffs. Nowak has specifically noted that Gabriel Gomez and Porfirio Lopez are expected to help in that department and that dead ball defense has been an area of focus for the Union in preseason.
Injuries favor the Union, as only defender Chris Albright (doubtful, left groin strain) is listed on the club's injury report, while nine players are listed for Portland.
The Union can be successful if they can establish a ground game and use speed to attack the Portland defense. Direct long balls will be gobbled up by the physically imposing Timbers backline, but targeting the channels on the left and right side of the field will open up space in the middle. Portland was vulnerable at times in 2011 when attackers were able to get down the flanks and force their defense to backtrack towards goal.
Expect a physical, scrappy contest from two sides looking to start 2012 on a positive note. It may not be the beautiful game at its most elegant, but both teams are talented, gritty and gutsy – traits passed along by their respective managers.
Let the games begin.