The Portland Timbers are on the road again and set to take on the Philadelphia Union in one of their last Eastern Conference trips of the season. Riding the best run of form in Major League Soccer, the Timbers will still need to be wary of a Union side that have started to pull it together after an abysmal start to the year mired them firmly in the basement of the East.
The Timbers are coming into this one somewhat banged up following a long run of multiple matches each week and potentially missing a large group of players. The team has gotten used to missing players so far this season, but the players that the Timbers may be missing this week have been among the team's most regular contributors in 2015.
Adam Kwarasey, the Timbers' steady presence in goal so far this season, is listed as questionable with a thigh contusion and has been rumored to have been spotted still in Portland after the rest of the team traveled to Philadelphia. In his absence it will be either Jake Gleeson or Andrew Weber stepping up to start. Gleeson, who has been the starter for Portland Timbers 2 all year, did not make an appearance in the USL side's 2-1 loss to Vancouver Whitecaps 2 on Friday and, while Weber has been the backup to Kwarasey in the Timbers regular gameday 18, Gleeson has to be considered the club's second choice at keeper; a position that he claimed late last season.
On the back line, the Timbers could keep up their rotation at centerback, swapping in Nat Borchers for the injured Norberto Paparatto. While Liam Ridgewell will certainly remain the heart of the team's defense, Borchers and Papa have been rotating regularly and it will not come as a surprise to have Borchers, and his beard, back in the lineup whith Paparatto listed as questionable on the injury report.
Of the Timbers' many potential lineup changes, there is really only one that we know for sure: Taylor Peay will step in for Alvas Powell at right back while the young Jamaican is away with his national team for the Gold Cup. Caleb Porter confirmed at training this week that Peay would get the start, telling the press that he has every faith in the sophomore player. Bringing in Peay gives the Timbers another very athletic, very fast outside back with strong attacking impulses and should not change up their game plan too much in the absence of Powell. If Peay is given license to get forward, the Timbers' holding midfielders and centerbacks will need to be wary of the spaces that he leaves open.
In the center of the pitch, the Timbers face the possibility of another week without Diego Chara as the team's most proactive ball-winner remains on the sidelines recovering from an ankle knock suffered several weeks ago. In his place, the Timbers will almost certainly bring in Jack Jewsbury once again, reprising his role alongside Will Johnson in the center of the pitch.
The Timbers' attacking foursome will also likely see at least one change, with Darlington Nagbe looking somwhat worse for ware following his shift against the San Jose Earthquakes last week. Without Nagbe on hand, look for Gaston Fernandez to step back into the starting line up alongside Diego Valeri and either Dairon Asprilla or Rodney Wallace. The Union back line has been less than solid this year and, if the Timbers can find space for him to work, this could be an excellent opportunity for Fernandez to carve up the opposition with the quick one-two passes and through balls that he favors.
At the top of the attack we could see Maximiliano Urruti given the start, particularly if the Timbers want someone to make runs at the Philadelphia back line, but it seems unlikely that the Timbers would rest Fanendo Adi while the big man has been in such solid form for the team, giving the Timbers some excellent holdup play in their last two wins.
All this should combine for a Timbers' lineup that will give the team a familiar look with some unfamiliar faces in the starting XI. Gleeson and Peay in particular will need to step up big for the Timbers and preserve the club's unbeaten record against the Union in MLS play as a strong defense has been key to the Timbers' identity in 2015.
The attack, which has seen a number of players step in and contribute in recent weeks, should keep improving as Valeri shakes off those last bits of rust that we have seen in his play since returning from the ankle sprain he suffered in Toronto. If the Maestro continues his recovery on the trajectory that we have seen in recent weeks, this could be a very strong strong showing from Valeri.
The Union, after winning one match in their first eleven, has started to pull it together since then and have looked like a decidedly middle of the road team as they have gotten results against some strong sides, but also lost to some weak ones. That rough start to the season has the Union as one of the favorites for the wooden spoon in MLS, in competition with the Colorado Rapids and the Chicago Fire, but with the packed nature of the table in 2015, they could easily find themselves in playoff contention if they can keep up their current pace.
For that to happen the Union will need to lock down their defense, a major weak point of the team in 2015. Although a 5-1 blowout by the LA Galaxy several weeks ago did not help, the Union currently lead the league in goals allowed, 32, and negative goal differential, -10. Despite shipping goals at a rate of 1.68 per game, the Union have shown flashes of solid defending this year, posting shutouts in four of their five wins and only allowing a single goal in the fifth.
At the heart of their best defensive performances have been the tandem of Maurice Edu and Richie Marquez, with Brian Carroll and Vincent Noguiera patrolling the midfield in front of them. It has been more than just tackling correctly for the Union, however, as the side has looked at their best when able to rely on their midfield to get the ball forward and relieve pressure, something that they have struggled to do, often turning the ball over in inopportune areas.
To that end, the resurgence of Cristian Maidana and CJ Sapong in recent games has been key for the Union as they have tried to get out of the race for the wooden spoon. Maidana, the Union's No. 10, is an excellent passer of the ball and, when he has someone to pass to, can thread the needle and find players to make things happen. Although the stats have not been there this season, only contributing a goal and two assists in sixteen games played, Maidana is still a key man in the Union attack.
Similarly, Sapong has had his issues this year, failing to get involved for much of Philadelphia's early season struggles, but he has come on strong of late, scoring key goals and providing strong, physical striker play in a similar vein to Portland's Adi. Sapong has scored in four of the Union's last five matches and will be a player to watch for Philadelphia, particularly on set pieces, where he has been extremely dangerous while getting on the end of Maidana's service.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. PT at PPL Park in Chester, PA
Portland Timbers: 9-6-4, 3rd place in the Western Conference
Philadelphia Union: 5-10-4, 7th place in the Eastern Conference