In a slate full of solid games, Saturday’s matchup between Philadelphia and Portland might be one of more intriguing weekend fixtures.
The Timbers travel to PPL Park with 33 points and an impressive 8-2-9 record. They’re tied for second (third in MLS' Supporters Shield race) in the league with 14 road goals scored, while conceding just 18 this entire season -- despite a bunch of injuries.
It’s those nine draws that are the key to Portland’s success this season. Sure, Caleb Porter’s team might have fewer wins than other top clubs, but they aren’t losing games. They’re getting results both at home and on the road, and that steady stream of points has pushed them to second place in the rock-solid Western Conference.
Philadelphia has yet to beat Portland in three tries. The Union offense has accounted for just one goal in 270 total minutes of play, resulting in a record of 0-2-1 all-time against the Timbers.
Portland runs an uptempo 4-3-3 formation, predicated on pressuring high and winning the ball in ideal locations.
It’s not dissimilar from what Kansas City runs, or even what the Union ran in the second half of 2012. The midfield plays in more of a “triangle” formation, which allows the fullbacks to get forward in wide areas. Essentially, it’s a free-flowing shape with a lot of movement and shuffling about.
The biggest boost for the Timbers is the presence of captain Will Johnson, who returns from Canada’s failed Gold Cup campaign. Providing quality in a box-to-box role, he’ll play next to the more defensive-minded Diego Chara.
Darlington Nagbe is a name you should by now. The dynamic youngster looks to attack, and can do a bit of everything from different spots on the field. He can come in from wide angles, link with the forwards in the middle, or even push inside the box at times. Nagbe really has the ability to create something from nothing, which is hard to find these days.
One positive for the Union is the absence of Rodney Wallace, who remains on Gold Cup duty with Costa Rica. The 25-year-old is having a career year with four goals and five assists in just 883 minutes.
Up top, could feature Frederic Piquionne in the center of the attack, with Ryan Johnson on one side and either Nagbe or Diego Valeri on the other. The latter pair tends to interchange fluidly for 90 minutes.
The Argentine Valeri brings those South American playmaking skills to this Portland side, while Piquionne and Johnson spend most of their time in and around the box. It’s a very balanced attack with the goal-scoring duties shared between different players.
There’s good depth in this department. Porter has gotten some real quality minutes from guys like Ben Zemanski and Kalif Alhassan. Guys like Sal Zizzo and Jose Valencia haven’t featured much, but do provide a good option off the bench.
With all of the injuries this backline has suffered in 2013, you have to wonder how this team has been able to continue defending at a high level.
Center backs David Horst and Mikael Silvestre are out indefinitely, so the backline has really been held together by Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Futty Danso, and mid-season signing Pa Modou Kah.
Kah returns from suspension this week and will be available to play. Danso and Jean-Baptiste are big, strong defenders who have each had success against Philadelphia in the past.
At left back, look for ex-Kansas City man Michael Harrington. Former Timbers captain and midfielder Jack Jewsbury has switched positions and now lines up at right back for his team.
And you can’t forget goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. The Jamaica international is having a blockbuster season, with a save percentage and goals-against average that are second only to Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando.
Possible Starting XI: Ricketts (GK), Harrington, Kah, Jean-Baptiste, Jewsbury, W. Johnson, Chara, Valeri, Nagbe, R. Johnson, Piquionne