For the first time this season, the Portland Timbers take on the Philadelphia Union as they travel to PPL Park on Saturday (4:30pm PT, KPDX, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940). Find out all the inside information on the opposition.
A brief history…
Introduced as the 16th team in MLS in 2010, Philadelphia were not short on support in their bid to join the league with the supporters’ group ‘Sons of Ben’ helping to drum up interest before Keystone Sports & Entertainment got involved to provide the financial backing required.
In their three years in the league, Philadelphia has become a competitive team on the pitch and a solid franchise off it regularly attracting large crowds for home games at PPL Park. With links set up with the Harrisburg City Islanders and Deportivo Saprissa, they are constantly looking to expand and to develop as a soccer club.
How did they fare last season?
It wasn’t a particularly memorable year for Philadelphia as they finished in 15th place overall in the league (eighth in the Eastern Conference) and really struggled to score goals with only 37 netted in 34 league games – Jack McInerney was their top scorer with eight strikes. Their overall record stood at 10-18-6 and summed up a miserable year that saw Jack Hackworth replace Peter Nowak as manager.
Who have they brought in for this season?
The return of fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux was huge as he played his best football in MLS with Philadelphia prior to trades to Vancouver Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls. The other notable signings included defender Jeff Parke, midfielder Kleberson, striker Conor Casey, and goalkeeper Oka Nikolov – although the latter has yet to make his first appearance for the team.
In order to make space on their roster, Philadelphia allowed Bakary Soumare, Gabriel Gomez, Porfirio Lopez, Gabriel Farfan, Freddy Adu, Chandler Hoffman, and Josue Martinez to move on. They also agreed to loan out Carlos Valdes and Zach Pfeffer as Hackworth wanted to work with a new-look squad and set new targets for the season.
How have they done so far this year?
After 20 games played, Philadelphia have a record of 8-6-6 with 32 goals scored and 30 conceded, which has worked out as them earning 1.5 points per game. They currently sit in the playoff places in the Eastern Conference – largely thanks to McInerney, who has netted 10 goals from 23 shots on target. The assists from Le Toux and Sheanon Williams has also contributed to their good form, which has seen them lose just once in their last five league games.
Head coach: John Hackworth
Involved in coaching since 1992, this Florida native has worked in college (with Wake Forest and the University of South Florida) and with international teams (United States and US Under 17’s) before moving into MLS. In 2010, Hackworth was appointed as assistant to Peter Nowak at Philadelphia and also served as Youth Development Coordinator. Then last year, he stepped in as interim manager before landing the job on a full-time basis.
Star Player: Sebastian Le Toux
When Philadelphia entered MLS in 2010, this Frenchman was the face of their franchise as he became an instant hit with the club’s supporters. Whether played up front or out wide, the 29-year-old pushes his team forward and creates a huge amount of goalscoring opportunities. So far this season, he has tallied three goals and nine assists to regain the type of superb form that he showed with the team in his first spell – he was traded to Vancouver Whitecaps but returned this year.
One To Watch: Amobi Okugo
Possibly Philadelphia's most consistent performer this year, Okugo’s versatility allows him to cover a variety of positions and dominate in each of them. Strong on the ball, clever with his passing, and excellent at reacting to potential danger, he has a natural defensive instinct that serves him well. While he plays a lot at center back, he is more suited to a holding role in central midfield, where he can get on the ball more and contribute to attacks.
What can the Timbers expect?
Philadelphia is a team with realistic ambitions of making the postseason playoffs and in order to achieve that they must collect as many points as possible from their home games. So the Timbers can expect to be put under pressure from the very start with the hosts likely to stick with their predictable-yet-affective tactic of getting the ball into the opposition’s penalty area as often as possible.
With quality finishers in Casey and Le Toux, they have players who can pounce on any loose balls or power in headers when crosses are flung into the penalty area. This tactic is also used at set-\ pieces, where they aim to overpower and out-jump opponents to score goals. But they also have players, like Danny Cruz and Roger Torres, who can make things happen in open play.
Who are their main threats?
The obvious target is leading goalscorer McInerney, but he is freshly returned from Gold Cup duty with the United States. His availability is unknown for Saturday's match. However in his absence, Philadelphia have relied heavily on Casey, who is a powerhouse and the former Portland Pilot is amongst the best forwards in the league when it comes to aerial battles. Behind him, Le Toux, Cruz, Torres and Leonardo Fernandes are the creative sources, who get them moving on the front foot and provide service into Casey.
Aside from their attacking duo, Philadelphia is a hard-working team in midfield with Amobi Okugo and Brian Carroll breaking up play, so that the likes of Cruz, Torres, Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel can wreak havoc with their runs. At outside back, Williams and Raymon Gaddis often get forward on over-lapping runs. But the key man in Philadelphia clicking as an attacking unit is Le Toux, because he is so clever with the ball and creates so many opportunities.
Where are they most vulnerable?
Often set up in a 4-4-2 formation, Philadelphia can be outnumbered in midfield against a team like the Timbers who use an extra man in that area. It means that Carroll is forced to do the defensive work of two men and that can be way too much for even an experienced player to handle. More support needs to come from the forward players dropping back, but with McInerney's status uncertain, they have tended to keep Casey up top alone and revert to a 4-2-3-1 system.
In defense, a lot depends on whether Okugo is playing at center-back or not. If he is, then the 22-year-old is the perfect partner for ex-Seattle Sounder Parke. But the outside backs are not as solid when put on the backfoot, which is something that the Timbers could expose through Diego Valeri or Darlington Nagbe, who drift into those positions to create openings. If enough pressure is applied, this Philadelphia backline can be broken down.
Previous Meetings in MLS
2011: May 6 – Portland Timbers 1-0 Philadelphia Union
2011: September 10 – Philadelphia Union 0-0 Portland Timbers
2012: March 12 – Portland Timbers 3-1 Philadelphia Union
Record vs Philadelphia Union: 2-0-1
Did You Know?
Midfielder Kleberson played 32 times for Brazil, where he was part of their World Cup-winning squad in 2002 and also won the Copa America (2004) and the FIFA Confederations Cup (2009).
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.