Match Preview – Portland Timbers vs Philadelphia Union

Nineteen down – fifteen to go; one game at a time…  I believe that philosophy but I also think there’s value in fans like us reliving superb moments in history, and by all accounts in feedback I’ve had from others, on my last blog, the noise and sheer elation coming from the entire stadium, last Saturday, was one of those monumental moments in history for this franchise…

As such, it would be rude for me not to offer up that moment in time for you to enjoy before digging into the business of some things that may or may not influence the outcome of the Timbers and Timbers Army next road match in Philadelphia…  flippin ‘eck – what a glorious stunner!

To begin…

PPL Park – Like most stadiums a grass surface, and likely it will be sticky, a bit long and maybe a bit clumpy given it’s used for Rugby as well…  All told the dimensions are 120 x 75 yards; so longer and slightly wider than JELD-WEN.

With the lads being well rested that extra few yards shouldn’t really present an issue unless the humidity goes bonkers.

Weather – Saturday July 20th Scattered T-Storms High of 90°; Scattered T-Storms with a potential for severe thunderstorms – CHANCE OF RAIN: 40%; Wind ~ 10 mph

Kickoff is in late afternoon/early evening so at least the sun won’t be baking down too long…

Standings – Most know Portland are in 2nd place with 33 points while the Union are in 4th, in the Eastern Conference, with 30 points.

If you thought you were in for a rest this weekend forget about it… this will be a tough game – both mentally and physically.

John Hackworth seems to do a great job on getting the best out of his players as does Caleb Porter; expect lots of contact as the Union look to get under the skin of Portland.

Formation – Hackworth has run a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and diamond 4-4-2 at home.  For those who want to know Hackworth has opened up in a 4-2-3-1 when playing Chivas, Seattle and Sporting KC.  He’s leveraged the Diamond 4-4-2 against Dallas while reverting to a 4-4-2 against New York, Columbus, Chicago, LA, Toronto and New England.

I won’t say there is an obvious pattern here but if you feel Seattle and Sporting are possession based teams then it’s likely Hackworth has them in a 4-2-3-1 against Portland as they try and clog the middle.

The odd one out in the 4-2-3-1 category would be Chivas, and that formation probably had more to do McInerney being away on Gold Cup duty than the opponent.

Knowing McInerney is back I’d expect to see both he and Casey partner up top with Cruz, and Le Toux running the wings, while Carroll and Farfan bucket up the defensive middle.

Figure Gaddis, Parke, Okugo and Williams will round out things from left to right in the back four.  Zac MacMath should probably be between the pipes…

Portland has Will Johnson returning to the midfield to partner with Diego Chara while Nagbe and Valeri are sure to return, as normal, in their forward positions.  As noted in my post match analysis of the LA game I’d offer that we may see Ryan Johnson open on the left with F. Piquionne rotating up top.

This potentially solves two issues; a continuing “appearance” where Kalif tends to lose sight of the game while also bolstering the set-piece defense given the Union pedigree in scoring 15 goals from them so far this year.

At the end of the day I sense that Piquionne has proven his value on both sides of the pitch and the added height from those two working together gives Porter maximum opportunity to penetrate in a number of different ways and directions.  Variation is good and I would offer that those two together enhance that rigid flexibility across the top.

As for the back-four; I’d offer that we see AJ Baptiste playing alongside Futty Danso with Jewsbury and Harrington filling the fullback slots…

Goals Scored – Their top goal scorer and shot taker, Jack McInerney, has returned from Gold Cup duty so he’s back in.  So that’s a poacher and a brute (Casey) who will look to partner up top.

Although Okugo is listed as a midfielder in Fantasy Football he’s playing as a center-back so the midfield danger guys are most probably LeToux, Cruz and Farfan… with Okugo being the target guy on set-pieces.  Williams will also be dangerous given he has 7 assists so far this year.



For Portland – Only Wallace is out digging for gold now so the arsenal is almost fully loaded with Johnson and Piquionne back at full strength.

Bottom line here is Portland can score from any direction, at anytime, with any player working in a forward position…  how wide and high and tight the Union back-four play should help guide where Portland looks to score from.

Curved Air – Unlike the LA Galaxy there are some notable patterns in reviewing the Union…

First up Crosses – Two points of view on this one; the first from the Union view and the second from the view of the opponents to date…



Note that when the opponent gets Philadelphia to play more crosses, from their left, the opponent seems to win (see the bars above SKC1 and LAG); in other words it would appear the Union prefer to offer up crosses from the right.  If the opponent closes that option down it seems the Union struggle a bit more…

It may be hard to believe but with 10 games played at home Philadelphia has a .7248 correlation between winning points in the league table and offering up crosses coming from their right.  I’m not suggesting that is 100% true but it is a pattern that has appeared and it is worthy to note that Williams plays on their right and he does have 7 assists so far this year…

In addition, when considering the number of set-piece goals they have (15) is it to far fetched to believe that some of those crosses are coming from set-pieces on the right – again Williams and his 7 assists???

If their right side is a hunting ground for them, Harrington and whoever pairs up as the upper forward, will need to be clued in to Le Toux or Williams, depending upon overlaps or switches…  another reason why I sense Johnson will play on the left side and Alhassan won’t; Ryan seems to track back better and provide a more physical presence on the pitch than Kalif.

So what about how the opponents look to attack the Union?

The best way to view this one is by looking at averages.  When the opponent wins they average just over 18 crosses per game, while when drawing or losing, they average ~ 13 per game.

There could be two things going on here; either the opponents just don’t like to cross the ball that much or perhaps the net output speaks more to the defensive approach taken by the Union to channel opponents down their middle as opposed to their wings.

And the more talented teams like LA (Donovan on that side) and Sporting (Zusi on that side) it is likely the opponent simply outgunned the Union down that side.  Perhaps this is one of those top days for Valeri or Nagbe?

Given the info about LA I checked out some numbers in the game.  Here’s the distribution for Donovan (1 goal 2 assists) that game from OPTA chalkboard

Here’s the OPTA chalkboard for Graham Zusi (1 goal 2 assists) in his game; note that the patterns are pretty close to being the same…  right works if you are Zusi and Donovan!

Overall the Galaxy played 14 crosses from their right side and 8 from their left – above average in all cases and outside of the Union game against Chicago that’s the most crosses the Union have faced at home this year.

So what do the other Curved Air points of interest show for the Union and their opponents at PPL Park this year?

Here’s the diagram for the Union followed by the diagram for their opponents this year…





A couple of things going on here…

Headers and Flick-ons are about average for all teams to include the Union – so no one team has really skewed any header/flick-on data – in other words the Union have not played San Jose in PPL Park this year…

On the other hand the opponent appears to be playing far fewer long balls when defeating the Union as opposed to drawing or losing to them; note that in every game Philadelphia has drawn, the opponent has had a player sent off with a red card…  it’s likely some of the outputs from those games are skewed given the 10 may situation.

Where the opponents have played more short balls, from square one, the result is clear; both LA and Sporting KC won and neither of them had a player sent off.

Note:  More short balls usually means that team is playing a possession based approach that game.

Overall, I don’t think it’s a long shot to offer that the Philadelphia Union pattern of headers, crosses, long balls, and flick-ons lend themselves to labeling this team as a ‘direct attacking’ team.

I’ll have a much better idea on that by the end of the season but for now, that pattern, coupled with an average total number of passes (364), leads me to believe their first choice attack strategy is ‘via direct’.

To further support that theory I offer up this additional info; Philadelphia have averaged about 364 passes per game (at home) this year.  Portland, on the other hand have averaged 440 the whole year with the average on away games at just over 400.

So even when we might consider Portland is playing more direct or counterattacking (given the drop in total passes in away versus home games) they still average about 40 more passes per game on the road than the Union at home.

Possession – So how have the opponents fared in passes and possession info when playing in PPL Park this year?



The two teams to win in PPL Park are LA and Sporting KC.

Both can, have, and do play possession based football, at times, and their average passes completed are 450 (gold bar in the opponent passes category).

Note that the teams that have lost or drawn against the Union have fewer passes completed; again the outputs may be skewed in draws given the opponents who have drawn with the Union have all had players sent off.

With respect to accuracy those that win are more accurate (~79%) and those that lose or draw are not (~71%).  As for the Union, it doesn’t seem to matter if they win, lose or draw, their accuracy hovers around 75%…

By contrast, Portland has averaged ~79% in all games this year while, in away games, that number drops slightly to ~77%…  so even when playing less possession based football Portland are still playing their possession based football but perhaps relying more on counterattacking to generate an initial threat.

The partial PWP for Philadelphia in home games this year with estimated penetrations and goal scoring opportunities created…



Pretty strong relationship, even without the estimates included, and when they lose note the drop off in time of possession for the Union.

The “actuals” for defensive clearances by the opponents are very high.  What this means to me is that the Union are doing everything they can, as quickly as they can, to penetrate and create goal scoring opportunities.  It also indicates to me teams may be playing slightly deeper to get numbers near long balls to minimize second-chance balls…

As for the opponents of the Union this year…



Note the very low numbers in overall defensive clearances by the Union versus their opponents, even in their losses.

From how things have taken shape this year I’d offer this means the Union may be playing higher and tighter in order to cut off the opponent attack as early as possible.

This approach usually means disruption that includes hard tackling with stop-start conditions that prevent strings of successive passing by the opponent.

That is not to say that is their only key to success… but if the Union are playing higher it may take a couple of different ways to get past that midfield; to include switches and some balls over the top.

One tactic used by Klinsmann, in the recent game against Costa Rica, was to play long balls from the back four; in the first 10 minutes of that game the USA attempted to penetrate the Costa Rican defending third four times in a row with long balls from the back four.

That approach succeeded in stretching the Costa Rican defense and it wasn’t until the second half opened that the USA had to take that approach again.

Perhaps we see that offering in the first 15 minutes by Portland to pull the midfield apart a bit?  For me, that’s another reason why I think we might see both Ryan Johnson and F. Piquionne on the pitch to start this match…

However the possession battle plays out it will be critical to limit fouls and free kicks inside the defending third; as noted by Caleb earlier this week – the Union have scored 15 goals on set-pieces; set-pieces win games no matter how much possession a team might have.

Defense – The Union are solid in the back four and their fullbacks will provide support in the attack – against Portland, Hackworth may have his guys play a bit more conservative – a good indicator on his fullbacks will be where they park themselves when the Union have the ball in the Portland defending half…

If overlapping his fullbacks Hackworth probably thinks he can go toe-to-toe with the Timbers; that should make for a very exciting game.

As for Portland, the back-four (with Mister Fantastic in the lead) did a very good job in limiting LA last week and, as always, both Diego Chara and Will Johnson will look to help support as appropriate.  This also means Nagbe and Johnson? will make sure they work to get behind the ball as needed.

In set-pieces the challenge will be marking Okugo – three goals for a center-back is good; very good – he’s dangerous…

Wild Things – Danny Cruz seems to be the guy who generates interest when it comes to red cards and the Union.  Bob Kellett talks about Danny in his recent article “Know thy enemy” as does the Philly Soccer page in this article , provided by Nick Garner in our possession with purpose discussions earlier this week.

The twist here, in case you’ve missed it, is opponents of the Union, in PPL Park, have garnered 7 red cards in 10 games.

And while Michael Farfan might lead their team in fouls suffered (30) it is Danny Cruz (21) who leads their team in red card fouls suffered.

I don’t see Portland making an special preparations for this other than looking to minimize (as always) fouls that occur in the defending third.

More appropriately though is that when looking at the Union players they have three guys with 28  fouls conceded (Casey, Carroll and Daniel) while Carroll is on four yellows and Farfan, Okugo, Parke and Gaddis (three defenders) are on three yellows.

It would be reasonable to expect this game to be disruptive and with the high temperature it will take cool heads, lead by Will Johnson, to weather the Union irritations…

Substitutes – Not sure if Powell travels, as he’s now joined the Timbers, so for now I would expect Zemanski, Valencia, Alhassan, Zizzo, Kah, Miller and Kocic to make up the subs bench while I have no idea who gets selected for the Union… perhaps, based on minutes played,  Hoppenot, Fernandes, Lahoud, and Kleberson with some others???

If attacking grist is needed for Portland I would offer we see Valencia and perhaps Alhassan, if leading, perhaps we see Zizzo, Zemanski or Miller.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Zemanski coming on in attack as well…

Timbers Army – I’m not sure how many folks from the Heartland Regiment or East Coast Platoon or local TA are showing but I’ve heard some from other states are making the journey to Philadelphia.  Stay thirsty my friends…

In Closing – Another tough game on the road against a very strong opponent who has a pedigree for winning at home far more than losing – this should be a great match-up for soccer purists and hopefully we see a result that favors the Timbers.

Critical will be sustaining and maintaining pressure without fouling in risky areas; 7 red cards by the opponents in PPL Park is a trend and not a very friendly trend.

It will be hot, humid and might even get delayed if server thunderstorms roll in… another road match and a clean sheet would be brilliant…

You can follow me on twitter @chrisgluckptfc and you are welcome to join my Possession with Purpose Facebook group…

Next up my match analysis…

Chris Gluck

Chris Gluck

I have been covering the Portland Timbers and Major League Soccer, as a community blogger/analyst for the Columbian Newspaper, since June, 2012. Since then my involvement in soccer analysis has expanded to include participating in the Regional Emmy Award Winning Soccer City PDX TV Show (Comcast Sports Northwest). My unique analytical approach has been published in Europe and presented at the World Conference on Science and Soccer 2014. I also appear regularly as a co-host on Rose City Soccer Show and the Yellowcarded Podcast. You can find my work on, PTFC Collective and Prost Amerika.

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