It's finally here. After a long, rollercoaster of an offseason the Union will open the 2012 season on the road in Portland (9:30PM, ESPN2).
If you're on the fence about getting into the Union this season, tonight should be a good litmus test. The environment in Portland is pretty awesome. Despite their being an opposing team, it's everything any MLS fan should want a club to have. Compared to the venues that still have many empty seats, it's encouraging to see the support the Timbers get.
This will be an extremely challenging season opener for the Union. In general, road teams are awful in MLS. Only two teams (LA and Seattle) were above .500 on the road last season. Combine that sobering league-wide away record fact with a cross-country flight, add in the fact that the Timbers compiled a 9-5-3 record at Jeld-Wen Field last season, and you've got a recipe for a nightmare of a season opener.
The Timbers enjoy fanatical fan support - to the point that they averaged approximately 16,000 for their preseason matches. Also, their fans have been featured in an episode of Portlandia.
The field itself will also pose a challenge for the Union. The Timbers play on a short, narrow, turf field. The dimensions are 110 x 70, which just meet FIFA's minimum field dimension requirements. By contrast, PPL Park measures 120 x 75. What does this have to do with anything?
Well, a smaller field means there will be less room for players to operate (it's science!). Like any other sport it's important for a soccer team to be strong up the middle. This is particularly true when playing on a compact field. Fortunately, with Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez the Union are stout in the middle.
One player who would normally operate in the center of the field, Roger Torres, will not play tonight. Peter Nowak told Jonathan Tannenwald of The Goalkeeper blog that Torres picked up an ankle injury during preseason training in Costa Rica. It does not sound like it's too serious, but Nowak cited the turf field and the Portland weather as reasons why Torres did not travel with the team.
Where will the Union generate offense post-Le Toux and without Torres? Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan will likely be called on to carry the bulk of the offensive playmaking responsibilities. Oregon State product Danny Mwanga returns to the Pacific Northwest as the Union's main goal scoring threat. Newcomers Lionard Pajoy and Josue Martinez may see time up top as well.
Defensively goalkeeper Zac MacMath and the back four of Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Sheanon Williams, Porfirio Lopes will have their hands full with Timbers designated player Kris Boyd (the all-time leading goal scorer in Scottish Premier League history) and second year midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe has been nursing an ankle injury, but should play.
Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury, the lone Portland all-star last season, contributed seven goals last season and is an engine in the midfield. Diego Chara combines with Jewsbury to give the Timbers two dangerous attacking options out of the midfield.
Two key Timbers will not play tonight. Futty Danso has a broken bone in his left foot and will not play. Franck Songo'o also will not play - he's in Spain dealing with visa issues.
Even without Danso and Songo'o the Union will have their work cut out for them. Portland is truly one of the great atmospheres in the league.
Starting Lineup I'd Like to See: MacMath, Williams, Valdes, Califf, Lopes, Carroll, Gomez, Adu, Okugo, M. Farfan, and Mwanga.
Final Score Prediction: It's incredibly difficult for a road team to earn a result at Jeld-Wen. With that being said, I do not like this spot for the Union. Portland takes the season opener 1-0.
Photo Credit: [http://concacaf-futball.blogspot.com/2011/11/mls-soccer-is-growing.html ]