KeyBank Match-up: Heightened Expectations vs. Heightened Expectations
MLS First Kick Eve is upon us with matches occurring across the league on Saturday. Supporters are giddy with anticipation while hope springs eternal. Every club starts undefeated and every club has a shot at hoisting the MLS Cup in the fall of 2012.
For the Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union, the wait for their own First Kick is just a few days longer as they are the featured match on Monday night at JELD-WEN Field (March 12, 6:30 pm PT; ESPN2, 750 AM The Game / 940 AM La Pantera).
Both teams went through busy and eventful offseasons. For Philadelphia, they finished their second MLS season in the playoffs and head coach Peter Nowak looks to go deeper in Year Three. For Portland, the playoffs remained just out of their grasp in 2011 but the squad was in the thick of the race right up until the end of the season.
The Timbers and Union come into 2012 with broadened experience and an eye towards improvement. The hope for greater success is shared from owners to coaches to players to fans and expanded expectation brings us to the KeyBank Match-up.
Portland hit the offseason hard in strengthening its core as well as shuffling its deck. Exercising the option on 16 players from their inaugural season as well as re-signing goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who had a career high nine shutouts in 2011, the team also mined Colombia for additional talent. Hulking centerback Hanyer Mosquera comes from La Equidad to bolster the backline while the signing of Colombian U-20 international Jose Adolfo Valencia from Santa Fe will pay off down the line due to surgery ending his 2012 campaign before it begins.
Draft day brought both addition and subtraction. The Timbers utilized the 8th overall selection in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft on UConn centerback and Generation adidas player Andrew Jean-Baptiste and last season’s big name signing, forward Kenny Cooper, was traded to New York in exchange for a 2013 first rounder selection.
Midfielder Franck Songo’o started out as a trialist in the preseason but burst onto the scene with a pedigree that includes time in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and youth development at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy. However it was the signing of Scottish striker and Designated Player Kris Boyd that sent expectations into a whole new level for 2012.
Boyd, the leading scorer in Scottish Premier League history, arrived in the Rose City with much fanfare and a pinpoint laser focus to score goals. In his preseason debut against Swedish side AIK, he did just that in the 7th minute providing the Timbers with a 1-0 win. At Boyd’s introductory press conference, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson was asked what Boyd’s signing meant for the city of Portland to which he replied, “We want to win. I don’t know how to put it any more simply than that.”
That kind of pressure to succeed and move past their expansion starter season is one head coach John Spencer and his whole team is eager to embrace.
For Philadelphia, their offseason was overshadowed by as much by subtraction as anything else. Yes, they picked up new players—Gabriel Gomez, Lionard Pajoy, Josue Martinez, and Porfirio Lopez to name a few—but as Timbers play-by-play man John Strong points out in his preview, “of the top fifteen players in minutes played from last year, seven are no longer with the team.” The most noticeable subtractions being top striker Sebastien Le Toux (traded to Vancouver) and 2011 MLS All-Star goalkeeper and captain Faryd Mondragon (returned to his native Colombia).
In their place is a talented group of young core players in goalkeeper Zac MacMath, midfielders Danny Mwanga and Freddy Adu, defender Sheanon Williams among others that are all primed to have big seasons.
However, one thing not subtracted from the Union side is an increased expectation for a deeper run into the playoffs especially now as a year three team. They have an enticing mix of skill, athleticism, and technical ability all of which will be on display Monday night against Portland. Union defender Danny Califf—one of the few older veteran players—will be closely watching Boyd in an intriguing subplot to the overall narrative.
But Monday’s First Kick is really about both teams beginning their journey with the expectations for bigger and better things in 2012. While the evening’s end result may not portend anything towards their end-of-season final destination, it’s certainly a great place to start watching to see how it all unfolds.