Strong's Notes: Winds of Change

Play-by-play man John Strong takes a look into First Kick opponent Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Flag, Getty Images

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Getty Images

After months of waiting, and weeks of buildup, the Portland Timbers are now set to open their second MLS season Monday night against the Philadelphia Union (March 12, 6:30 pm PT; ESPN2, 750 AM The Game / 940 AM La Pantera). In many ways, the Union are a blueprint for what the Timbers could do this year: fifteen points away from the playoff places in their expansion year of 2010, they used a combination of shrewd acquisitions and seasoning of their young core to top the Eastern Conference much of the first half of 2011, and make the postseason in just their second season. However, what could have been a preseason of minor tweaks got a bit more interesting…

Who’s Not Here…
All told, of the top fifteen players in minutes played from last year, seven are no longer with the team—a group that accounted for more than half of their offense. Sebastien Le Toux, whose goals and assists the last two years accounted for almost 60 percent of the team’s scoring output, was traded to Vancouver; goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, one of the best in MLS, abruptly went home to finish his career in Colombia; and, among others, left winger Justin Mapp was left exposed to Montreal in the expansion draft.  That being said, Philly were quite active making sure to plug those holes.

Who’s Here In Their Place…
All told, manager Peter Nowak brought in 13 newcomers, six of whom are on their prospective “two-deep” roster. Defensive midfielder Gabriel Gomez brings 75 caps from the Panamanian national team, 30-year-old Lionard Pajoy provides some crucial experience to a forward line that are all 21 or younger other than him—including Costa Rican national teamer Josue Martinez. Plus there’s new left back Porfirio Lopez who played on the opposite side of Martinez in Costa Rica’s biggest club rivalry.

Lopez represents more of a tweak than a full overhaul: he joins a backline trio of centerbacks Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf, and right back Sheanon Williams, who played together for 29 of the team’s 34 games last year. Philly was 0-2-3 in games one of them missed, including when Califf was sick for the trip to Portland last spring.

Who’s Still Around…
That brings us to the established core of the team, which, minus those aforementioned missing pieces, is high on talent if low on experience. New goalkeeper Zac MacMath, last year’s backup, might start for the US at the Olympics this summer, and looked sharp for a 20-year-old when Mondragon was hurt late last year. Attacking midfielder Roger Torres, another 20-year-old, provided a real spark the last two years on loan from Colombia, and the team used the allocation money from the Le Toux trade to buy out his contract.

Danny Mwanga—a Jefferson High kid and former Oregon State Beaver—is looking for more consistency in his third year; the Farfan twins, Michael and Gabriel, were both solid contributors in defense and midfield in their rookie years; Freddy Adu—yes, THAT Freddy Adu—is hoping to finally make it stick at the pro level; and Brian Carroll, who’s helped his team to the playoffs in each of his nine MLS seasons, provides experience and calm to the center of midfield.

The only X-factor in all of this? No one has any idea how they’ve done in preseason. They’re the only MLS team to not have played against another MLS team in preseason, and the team didn’t publicize any of the results of its final tuneup matches in Costa Rica.

Philadelphia had the second-best defense in the league last year, and the core of the backline has been augmented by an experienced piece, and is backstopped by one of the bring young American goalkeeping stars. Outside of that, there’s a lot of talent, a lot of potential, and a lot of youth. How they handle the intensity of JELD-WEN Field on what will be a wildly emotional night will go a long way to determining who can celebrate a good start to 2012 come Tuesday morning.