Tactically Speaking: POR 3:1 PHI
The first ESPN2 match of the season turned out to be a rainy affair from Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, as the Timbers overcame an early second half deficit to put away the Philadelphia Union, 3-1.
The hosts began in a compact 4-4-2 diamond formation. New signing Kris Boyd paired up top with Jorge Perlaza. The midfield started very narrow, with Khalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander acting more as box-to-box midfielders slightly right and left, respectively. Diego Chara played the advanced midfield role, and Jack Jewsbury anchored in front of the backline. 2012 1st round SuperDraft pick Andrew Jean-Baptiste got his first official MLS start pairing up with mainstay Eric Brunner.
Not many knew how the Union would look in their first match, since much of their preseason was spent away from the public spotlight. Peter Nowak put them in a pressing 4-2-3-1. The main forward was Lionard Pajoy, a physical target man who excelled at holding the ball up. The main surprise was Michael Farfan playing as an advanced playmaker, a role that likely would be filled by Roger Torres if not for a slight injury. Josue Martinez and Freddy Adu cut in from the edges as wingers. The back 7 lined up as one would expect.
For Philadelphia, there was a bit of a problem that stemmed from using guys out of position. Martinez is a natural striker, and as a right foot he has a tendency to come inside. Adu isn’t the speediest winger, and thus he never really created problems for Rodney Wallace on the left. Additionally, Farfan has looked more comfortable on the right wing in the past (he scored a goal in the Real Madrid friendly last season from that position). Having that advanced midfield playing unfamiliar roles led to a lot of possession lost in the push forward.
Tactically, Portland adjusted as the match progressed, mostly to exploit what became a glaring weakness for Philadelphia – Porfirio Lopez. It’s unclear whether Lopez lacked match fitness, or if he had nerves in his first match for the Union. What was clear was that Spencer saw a flaw to expose. Play down the right became a dangerous pathway for the Portland offense.
Portland was always in control of the flow in this match. Jeld-Wen Field is an imposing venue for opposing teams even on a clear night, and in the torrential rain the Union preferred to absorb as much pressure as possible. Their best method for attacking was direct through Pajoy, but that wasn’t reliable. Nowak tried to move Pajoy around in the formation, putting him left to try to tie up Palmer and Alhassan. The Colombian did well with his back to goal, but he didn’t have the support around him to threaten Troy Perkins much.
The first half was marked by a few good saves from Zac MacMath and hardly any pressure from Philadelphia. The Union only mustered two shots in the opening period. But after the break, Philadelphia nicked a goal six minutes in. Gomez curled the ball from about 30 yards out, and the ball deflected off Jean-Baptiste’s head and into the right side of goal. After much debate, the goal was awarded to Gomez as it appeared it would have turned inside the post on its own.
With the lead, the Union were left with their first challenge of the new season – holding a lead on the road in a difficult environment. It took less than 5 minutes for the Timbers to put that aside. Even with the size the Union added in the offseason, the dreaded set piece turned the tide as it has throughout their existence in the league. Lopez lunged in on Alhassan well outside the area to draw a free kick. Jewsbury’s cross was headed on goal from around the penalty spot by Jean-Baptiste. MacMath dove for the ball, a shot that typically would be an easy scoop. The wet ball slipped through his arms and into the goal, and just like that the match was equalized. The young keeper made some key saves throughout the match, but this unforced error certainly swung the momentum in the favor of the Timbers.
Alhassan continued to cause problems for Lopez, and in the 66th minute he danced away from the left back long enough to swing a left-footed cross towards goal. Boyd was there to redirect it past MacMath, beating Danny Califf to the ball. The final salvo came ten minutes later, off a quick freekick taken from the right – granted by another Lopez foul. Jewsbury restarted the play with the Union not set. Alhassan dribbled inside and lobbed a ball to the far post from a tight angle. The ball dropped inside the post and doubled Portland’s lead. The Timbers needed little more, as the Union were spent and soaked in the Portland rain. A 3-1 victory was representative of the way that Portland outworked the Union.
Portland travels down to suburban Dallas to face the Hoops on Saturday, while Philadelphia will have a chance to redeem the lackluster performance in front of a fired-up home crowd. They will take on Colorado Sunday afternoon, and that match will be aired on the NBC Sports Network.