The Portland Timbers are back on the road this weekend and will take on the Philadelphia Union this Saturday in their sixth match of the 2017 season. To get the low-down on the match we turned to The Brotherly Game’s Eugene Rupinski
The Timbers are winless in their last two and will want to convince the league and themselves that they are still a side to be feared, while the Union are winless in 2017 and will be looking to bust out of the league’s basement.
The Union have yet to win a match in 2017 and currently sit tied for last place with Real Salt Lake; it is still early, but what has gone wrong for the Union so far and what needs to change for the side to work their way out of the basement?
A lot has gone wrong for the Union thus far this season. Promising young center back Josh Yaro has been out, having had surgery on his shoulder - the same tear of the right labrum he suffered last year in a match against Orlando City. This has forced Oguchi Onyewu in at center back, and while Gooch has played well there have been times where the opposing offenses have been able to capitalize on his relative lack of mobility.
The Union's midfield has also not come together quite as expected, and it's wholly unclear who is supposed to do what. The Union's midfield is supposed to be a triangle, with Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones at the base and Alejandro Bedoya at the top. This becomes problematic when Medunjanin starts to roam forward, forcing Jones to drop deeper to provide cover. Bedoya has not looked comfortable at the 10, even saying in an interview that he's not a playmaker and is more comfortable as an 8.The problem with that is that when he was playing the 8 last year with a world class 10, he still did not look great. There have been rumblings that he could be moved back to the 8 with Roland Alberg or Fabian Herbers at the 10, but Alberg's lack of fitness and Herbers' utility along the right wing make that seem unlikely to happen immediately.
While this has hamstrung the Union, there have been several missed opportunities and several bounces that just didn't go their way. Bedoya's failed penalty attempt against Toronto FC would have could have won that game for the Union. If Ilsinho's shot at the death against Orlando City was a couple inches lower, it doesn't crash off of the crossbar and the Union get a point. If the referee in last week's match had shown Marcelo Sarvas a red card for stomping on Derrick Jones, that could have been a much different game. These are bad breaks for sure, but they're not excuses. The team hasn't performed as well as they could have for most of the season, and as a fan that's troubling.
Despite going winless through four matches, the Union have allowed only six goals and kept a -2 goal differential. Is this back line strong enough to carry the Union forward and are there any weaknesses in it that the Timbers will be looking to target on Saturday?
I believe the defense is the best unit the Union have right now. Andre Blake is the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and in front of him is a solid unit. Richie Marquez is probably one of the better center backs in the league, and he's paired with Onyewu who has a ton of international experience. Keegan Rosenberry should have won MLS Rookie of the Year last year (something we can agree on is the Jordan Morris hate, right?) and is one of the best right backs in the league, and Fabinho on the left is more of a wing back, often times making forward runs with Chris Pontius to create chances.
There are weaknesses though for sure. Marquez got kicked in the head last week against D.C. United and has been undergoing concussion protocol all week. He may or may not be cleared to play, and rookie Jack Elliott could be called to play. While he looked decent against D.C., the Portland offense is far more dangerous than what United showed. Onyewu's weakness is his speed and mobility. I think the Union will look to have him match up with Fanendo Adi, however if Portland can get Onyewu trying to defend against Sebastian Blanco or Diego Valeri it would be a mismatch. Also exploitable is Fabinho's runs forward. When he's upfield trying to generate offense, he can be exposed if the Union lose possession and Portland goes down their right flank. While Chris Pontius does get back on defense, he's not a defender by trade so it's certainly a situation where a quick pass from the back along the right flank to Blanco could spell trouble for the Union.
What is going on at forward for the Union? Do the brass in Chester, PA really think that Jay Simpson is the answer or will the Union end up looking elsewhere for their goals this season?
I don't think the Union's scoring woes are the fault of Simpson. All too often he's been alone on an island with no service coming to him - and that's been the same for CJ Sapong when he's been up top as well. The difference is that Sapong is usually facing tired defenses, coming in as a sub in three of his four appearances. To be fair though, Sapong has scored in three of the four games the Union have played, while Simpson has scored only once in his three games (he missed the match against Orlando City due to a bruised lung suffered during the match against Toronto FC).
That being said, the Union's goals last season predominately came from non-center forwards. Chris Pontius led the team in goals as a right winger, and Roland Alberg was second from the central attacking midfield position. Simpson was brought in hoping to add to that total, and thus far hasn't done that. This goes back to the issues at the 10 and Alejandro Bedoya not being the playmaker the Union need. Until a true 10 is in that role, it could be more of the same for Simpson.
Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake; Fabinho, Jack Elliott, Oguchi Onyewu, Keegan Rosenberry; Haris Medunjanin, Derrick Jones; Chris Pontius, Alejandro Bedoya, Ilsinho; Jay Simpson