Among the two big stories heading into Saturday’s match against Portland (7:30 p.m., purchase tickets) are the notes about the team's top decision maker and its top scorer.
Manager John Hackworth can't roam the sideline because of a one-game suspension for being sent off the field last Friday against Chivas USA, by referee Jorge Gonzalez. It's the first game Hackworth will miss since being named as the interim manager last summer.
While it sounds serious, in soccer, losing a manager on game day is not as devastating as it might sound. Most of the manager's work is done during the week as he prepares his team for the game. From training sessions, to tactical meetings, watching video and instituting a game plan for the opponent, most of the work is done long before matchday.
Come kickoff time – it's more on the players to execute.
So while Hackworth will not be allowed to interact with his team at the stadium, rest assured he has him team prepared and he'll be the one with the final say on the starting 11 and the gameday 18.
Once the game starts, Union assistant Rob Vartughian will be in control, but no doubt, Hackworth will lead the way in advance talks about the game and the games potential situations.
One of his decisions will be whether or not to return Jack McInerney to the starting lineup. While he has to talk to Jack first to see how the last few weeks have gone with the U.S. men’s national team, the guess would be that he would start.
Unless Jack was to return to Philly, mentally and/or physically tired, all signs would indicate that the leading scorer goes back up top with Conor Casey.
In Jack's absence, the team has found others to pick up the pace in scoring, most notably Conor Casey who has now scored five goals in his last six games. The attack has become more diverse in Jack's absence out of necessity as others had to compensate for the club losing its top goal getter.
Sebastien Le Toux now has nine assists to lead MLS and Sheanon Williams has seven, making the right side of the Union attack that much stronger.
I'm not worried though about McInerney fitting back in. He has a lot to motivate him, not that he necessarily needs the extra things, but here they are:
- McInerney did not score a goal in his last three Union matches.
- He was called up to the U.S. men’s national team but did not get a minute of action, and was sent back to Philadelphia.
- He was not voted on, nor named to the initial All-Star roster for this year's game versus Roma in Kansas City.
If he needed the extra motivation, he now has it. I think Jack will just be excited to get back to playing soccer with his club team, and playing before another great crowd at PPL Park.
The game presents a strong challenge for the Union as the Portland Timbers come in with the second best record in the Western Conference, trailing Real Salt Lake.
They had a 15-game unbeaten streak until a recent loss to Columbus. With now just one loss in their last 17 games, the team has responded to the first year leadership of Caleb Porter. Donovan Ricketts has played as well, if not better than his best days in a Los Angeles Galaxy uniform and midfielder Will Johnson is having a career year with this team.
Ryan Johnson, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe have combined to rank Portland number five in average goals scored per game, 1.58. On the defensive side, a 0.95 goals against average stands out; that's the second best mark in the league, slightly behind Real Salt Lake.
Portland is one of those rising teams that are gaining a lot of respect throughout MLS. The Union will need their “A-game” in order to get maximum points out of this one.
Can’t make it out to PPL Park?
The game can be seen on The Comcast Network beginning at 7 p.m. with the pregame show.