The Portland Timbers are the favorite of many to win some silverware this year. Last year's complete overhaul by Caleb Porter changed the playing identity of the Timbers to a possession-based side with a high line of defensive confrontation. Philadelphia Union, on the other hand, played very direct last season. They brought in several new players who look to put their stamp on the Union brand of soccer and get them back to the playoffs this season.
Final score: Portland 1 : Philadelphia 1
Philly attack up the right
The entire first half, Philadelphia was finding plenty of success attacking up the right side. Nogueira would frequently drift out wide to combine with both Le Toux and Gaddis. All three seemed to be trying to exploit the space between Fernandez, who was often pushed high or inside in possession, and Harrington. They were successful on their overloads, combining out wide before finding someone up the line or Edu in the middle. During the first half it seemed as though Philly was intentionally keeping the ball on their right side, rarely looking to swing the ball across the back to change the point of attack. Berry and Okugo were particularly guilty in not finding players out left as they would frequently ignore open players on the left (primarily Fabinho) and opt to play central or right.
In the second half, Maidana switched the the right. As much possession and space as Philly found there in the first half, they could have been a lot more dangerous from that area. Le Toux simply doesn't have a precise enough touch on the dribble or incisive passing to be the difference maker there. Maidana looks like he can be that player and the switch was a great move by Hackworth to attempt to exploit Gaston's lacking defense.
Portland slow to transition to defense
This was a major factor in Philly's chance creation in the first half. Portland simply stunk at their transition after losing the ball. With Portland's possession style, they get plenty of players forward in attack. Last season, they were able to mitigate a lot of potential counter-attacks by doing two things simultaneously: place immediate pressure on the ball, and have their weak-side players and holding-mid pivot drop off. In the first half, they were ineffective at both.
Nogueira touched the ball more than anyone else on the field. That simply shouldn't happen against a team playing three central midfielders, especially when one of them is Diego Chara. The lack of immediate pressure on the ball allowed Nogueira to find gaps in the center of the field. It was exceptionally notable that there were yards of space for Philly to receive the ball in transition between the centerbacks and the holding mids. The centerbacks were correct in their decisions to drop off and leave that space because there was inadequate pressure put on the ball, which means the player in possession can find a ball over the top much easier.
Portland lack penetrating movement and urgency
Last year, Portland were known for their patience on the ball, waiting for an opportunity to find someone making a run in behind to slip a simple through ball to. They had the first part of this down, but there weren't many runs in behind. There was just no urgency anywhere on the field to penetrate lines.
Nagbe, in particular, was guilty of lack of energy. He seemed completely disinterested for most of the first half and was content to hang out 5-10 yards off the Union defenders. In the second half, he was switched to the left with the introduction of Alhassan for Urruti. He suddenly looked like he wanted to score. He made lots of good runs in behind and combined well in the second half.
Philly looked a lot better than I think they probably are in this one because Portland lacked intensity for large portions of the game. Their signings all look to be good pickups and should push them into playoff contention this year, at a bare minimum. Caleb Porter won't let Portland come out that flat next week and Portland's tactical awareness and technical ability will shine through.