By Brennan ‘Brenaldo’ Burns, resident pundit of Timberlandia.
The Portland Timbers kick off their second season in MLS against the Philadelphia Union this Monday at JELD-WEN Field (6:30 PM, ESPN2), the only encounter amongst the two clubs in 2012 after the league changed formats to an unbalanced schedule.
In two matches last season, the Timbers came out on top with the solitary victory, a one-nil conquest on home soil, but the Union performed better over the course of the season, earning a playoff berth much coveted by a Portland expansion side that narrowly missed out on the postseason.
Philadelphia earned that in only their second season in the league, a success Portland hopes to duplicate as the club enters its sophomore season in the modern top flight. For both clubs looking to improve from a year ago, the Timbers made noise chopping the underwhelming Kenny Cooper from the lineup to make room for Kris Boyd, a forward capable of wearing out Timber Joey’s chainsaw. The Union’s offseason, by contrast, rang alarm bells as the spine of the side was severely transformed.
Although Freddy Adu still grabs the headlines as the marquee name on the roster, his contribution as a midseason acquisition last year was nominal (2 goals and 1 assist in 11 matches). At the time his arrival was heralded as a second chance reunion with his first professional manager, Peter Nowak, who showed confidence in his former prodigy in the hopes he could fulfill his potential as the playmaker required to lead Philly on a deep run toward the MLS Cup.
The return of American soccer’s prodigal son is one all league observers want to see turn out positively, but it’s still up for debate whether Adu will reach the projected heights from which he crashed whilst having an unsuccessful go in Europe. For Nowak, Adu was not meant to be a savior, but a perfect complement to the club’s stalwart former skipper, now Vancouver Whitecaps striker Sebastian Le Toux. Nowak’s ruthless decision to trade the Frenchman from the northeast to the northwest turned heads across the continent, the former Seattle Sounder finding himself back in Cascadia wearing the armband for his new club, where’s he’s already breaking records while leading his new club to victory.
It is the loss of Le Toux’s leadership that will be missed most sorely, not to mention his club leading goals and assists (11 and 9, respectively). This transfer for allocation money seemed cynical as Nowak was unwilling to offer Le Toux Designated Player type compensation, choosing to focus instead on the club’s future players than repay Sebastian’s services to the club with a more lucrative contract.
The Union were already at a loss as Colombian netminder Faryd Mondragon chose to return to his native country, leaving the club reliant on second-year goalkeeper Zac MacMath. The Philly gaffer justified the move to allow both players to depart as an opportunity to strengthen throughout a roster replete with youth. He’ll need to rely on McMath’s seven match understudy role during Mondragon’s injury absence as proof that he can replace the South American’s steadiness, stoicism, and shutouts.
Compounding the loss of a leader between the pipes, Nowak has also gambled that a strikeforce of a yet unproven stable of young forwards can replenish the goalscoring void left behind by Le Toux, former Jefferson High School and Oregon State player Danny Mwanga expected to shoulder the brunt of the burden. Colombian veteran Lionard Pajoy brings a strong strike rate, but at thirty years old he is the only forward older than 21 while his younger teammates possess as much or more MLS experience as he does.
It’s not only Le Toux’s goals that will be missed, but his ability to set up his teammates, and newcomer Gabriel Gomez of Panama hopes to fill the passing lanes as he joins from Mexican side Indios. Gomez will be protected by Philly’s version of Portland captain Jack Jewsbury, longtime MLS vet Brian Carroll, who will be a much needed level head on a team comprised primarily of young guns. Carroll’s defensive posture allows others to push forward, and a wealth of riches on the flanks sees Colombian Roger Torres, Amobi Okugo, and Michael Farfan battling for the remaining midfield slots alongside Adu and company.
In the back, it is definitively Philly’s most battle tested group, returning starters Danny Califf, Sheanon Williams, and Colombian Carlos Valdes lining up with Costa Rican Porfirio Lopez, who starts over the rawer Gabriel Farfan (Michael’s twin brother). This group will be tested early and often, with adventurous wingers leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit. As the offseason exodus continued with Justin Mapp off to Montreal in the Expansion Draft, it leaves the Union without a true two-way outside midfielder (a naturally left-footed one at that) to protect their wingbacks.
While Nowak’s offseason maneuvers ask the Philly faithful to trust that all the change will come good, Portland cast aside its leading goalscorer as well. Cooper exited following a Golden Boot winning season as the club’s top scorer, an honor whose luster was dimmed by the fact that he failed to break the double digit barrier (8 goals). Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, general manager Gavin Wilkinson, and head coach John Spencer all knew more quality was needed up front if they wanted to assail this year’s postseason, Cooper’s midseason drought paralleling the team’s poorest point return from any stretch of the season proving fatal in their playoff hopes last season.
As the offseason progressed, players were brought in to provide depth and competition amongst the roster, but the billboard worthy signing came in the form of Boyd, the Scottish Premier League’s all time leading scorer (164 goals in 296 SPL matches). The former Kilmarnock and Rangers legend became available after a mediocre 2010-11 campaign in the English First Division at Middlesborough and on loan to Nottingham Forest led to an ill-fated move to Eskişehirspor of the Turkish Süper Lig, where he found paychecks and playing time hard to come by. Cancelling his contract, he was on the radar of many European clubs as the Houston Dynamo were the first MLS side to pick up his scent, only for Boyd to reject their courtship and opt for Portland instead.
His arrival in Portland sees the 28 year old come under the tutelage of fellow Scotsman Spencer, another former Rangers striker with a nose for goal and a system built for Boyd’s poaching instincts. After visa delays and an ankle knock on the training ground limited his time on the pitch in the preseason, he finally laced his boots up for his first match against Swedish club AIK in the club’s final preseason tuneup. He would require less than seven minutes to put the Timbers Army in paradise, picked out at the near post by likely opening night strike partner Jorge Perlaza to bury his header after beating his marker.
The eventual match winning goal was a ‘you get what you pay for’ moment, and immediately validated his guaranteed starter status, health and fitness permitting. His inclusion will be vital, not only does his danger serve as Portland’s most potent threat, his ability to divert the pressure from his teammates allows them to play more freely where hesitancy exists in his absence.
The hardworking but mildly effective Perlaza still has much to prove, his probable partnership with Boyd more down to durability and contrast than to superior performance to the seemingly fragile Darlington Nagbe and the hulkingly powerful Bright Dike. While Dike has returned to full fitness, his touch has not, while MLS Goal of the Year winner Nagbe struggles to stay on the field with a recurring ankle nag. Spencer hinted at moving Nagbe to his natural role as a deep lying striker, but won’t rush his return with other options available.
Both will likely see time off the bench when an offensive substitution is required, Dike offering Boyd respite and Nagbe replacing Perlaza as his constant running takes its toll. With Boyd taking the spotlight, it’s easy to forget that Portland has improved on a solid spine with additions throughout the rest of the squad.
While Jewsbury maintains his spot next to Perlaza’s Colombian countryman Diego Chara in central midfield, the wing positions are anyone’s guess as Spencer could favor Nagbe on the wing. This presents a challenge to an already crowded midfield, where Ghanaian Kalif Alhassan, Eric Alexander, Rodney Wallace, and the rehabilitating Sal Zizzo are all vying for minutes. All of these players likely fall down the depth chart as former Barcelona youth academy player Franck Songo’o returns from Spain with his visa issues sorted out and is declared match fit.
Most managers would say the numerous options are a good problem to have, but the competitiveness in training has already taken an injury toll on the defense, with Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso out at least a month with a broken foot, Steve Purdy nursing a hamstring strain, and David Horst still unavailable following offseason hip surgery.
New signing Hanyer Mosquera from Colombia will take Futty’s place in the middle next to Eric Brunner. The Timbers faithful will be hopeful El Mosco can match the Gambian’s aerial prowess in this contest, Futty’s headed goal proving the difference in last year’s triumph. If he can capitalize on set piece chances, he’ll put Nowak’s focus on not repeating last year’s mistakes to the test.
Mosquera, who showed tendencies in preseason to hold onto the ball too long in defense, will need to watch his step with draftee Andrew Jean -Baptiste ready to step in should he put a foot wrong. Lovel Palmer should be healthy and start, while Mike Chabala looks to start unless Spencer gives the recently impressive Wallace the nod in defense.
Now it comes down to Monday night, where a national television audience will watch as these two clubs usher in the new campaign with highly modified lineups. Nowak, who’s success as a player (MLS Cup 1998 Chicago Fire) and a manager (MLS Cup 2004 DC United) in the league is a testament to his effectiveness, yet his dual role as Executive Vice President of the Union will be severely questioned if his faith in youth doesn’t pan out.
Portland, contrarily, have made it clear that experience and goals are the key to progression as they look to attain silverware in their second season. Boyd’s poise and presence in the box will not only offer a premium target, but draw the attention of wary defenders, leaving space for others to exploit in an overhauled Union squad.
While the Timbers Army looks on with its rising sun banner, a new-look Portland side will display the evolution of Spencer’s system with new and improved parts, while the Union test Nowak’s revamped model on the road at one of the league’s most difficult venues, the Rose City’s Fortress of Thorns. For Philly’s ardent supporters, the Sons of Ben, the loss of their best player was hard to take, one that will be made even tougher should Portland’s newly adopted son Boyd rise to the challenge and deliver as promised.
A feisty affair is on the cards, one that the Timbers will surely be up for as they open the campaign in the comforts of home. For Nowak, he’d better hope the ghost of Le Toux doesn’t come back to haunt him in Cascadia.