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2014: The Hackworth Odyssey Begins

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The 2014 season kicks off with the Philadelphia Union traveling to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Portland Timbers. How will the revamped Union fair in their first true test?

Hunter Martin
Portland Timbers vs Philadelphia Union
Providence Park - Portland, Oregon
March 8th, 10:30pm Eastern - Comcast SportsNet

In the first trip to the stadium formerly known as JELD-WEN Field since 2012, the Union will be looking for their first ever win in Portland. John Hackworth and his retooled squad will unveil their new 4-3-3 formation for the first time in MLS league play.

What to Expect From the Philadelphia Union

There are a lot of new pieces that need to come together for the Union. The early going may not be pretty, as just 4 of the starters from the last game of 2013 were in the starting lineup for the last preseason game of 2014. That is a lot of moving pieces to have to fit together. The good news is that the team overall looks much stronger on paper than at any point in the Union history. Hackworth was under pressure to make the team his own and he did just that. Now that there are no more excuses to fall back on, he will want to hope that his season doesn't start the same way Nowak's last season in Philadelphia did; with a loss in Portland.

Hackworth has been very open about his approach of using a 4-3-3 and getting players that fit that system. The midfield is nearly completely retooled with the additions of Nogueira and Edu to partner with Carroll. The defense was strong in 2013 with MacMath fighting for the league lead in shutouts, and the defense remains largely unchanged, with the only swap of Austin Berry for Jeff Parke. That change was a late one so it will be important that Okugo and Berry form a solid partnership right away.

How the offense fits together is the major question. In 2013 the Union offense was a roller coaster. Jack McInerney started out as hot as can be, then cooled down in the second half of the season to a nearly frozen pace. The partnership between Conor Casey and McInerney seemed to be flourishing, but in the new 4-3-3 formation there is only room for 1 of them. The preseason has not been full of goals either, so hopefully they are holding back their firepower for the regular season.

What to Expect From the Portland Timbers:
Caleb Porter's comments at the end of preseason say it all about where Portland sees their season ending. "We should be one of the best teams in the league, plain and simple. We showed that last year. I would say that with the additions that we made we should still be in that caliber and maybe even better." Porter seems pretty confident in the squad he has put together and after a very exciting 2013 season, the crowd at Providence Park will be rocking from well before kick off.

The two biggest additions for Portland are a pair of 30 year old Argentines, central defender Norberto Papparatto from Club Atletico Tigre and forward Gaston Fernandez from Estudiantes de la Plata. They will join fellow Argentines Maximiliano Urruti and 2013 MLS Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri to create a very strong core in Portland. Donovan Ricketts, one of the top keepers in MLS, and Portland captain Will Johnson return as well and Darlington Nagbe will be looking to continue to build his MLS career. It is a very impressive roster, one of the best in the Western Conference and possibly the best in all of MLS.

Projected Union Starting XI:

Zac MacMath

Ray Gaddis - Amobi Okugo - Austin Berry - Fabinho

Maurice Edu - Brian Carroll - Vincent Nogueira

Sebastien LeToux - Jack McInerney - Cristian Maidana

No changes from the last preseason game as Hackworth is obviously trying to get all the pieces together. The only questions are right back and right wing. Sheanon Williams is still a question mark after coming off the field early in one of the last few preseason games. If he is healthy, he will be in the lineup, but there is no need to rush him back with Gaddis being more than capable of playing either outside back. On the right wing the battle is between LeToux and Danny Cruz. LeToux seems to be a more capable starter, and Cruz's speed and hard work could be too much to handle come the late minutes. While Cruz was subbed off the field consistently at the 60 minute mark last year, look for him to be this season's Antoine Hoppenot, coming into the game around the 60-70 minute each game.

Score Prediction:
Portland Timbers 3-1 Philadelphia Union
Portland scoring: Valeri, Nagbe, and Fernandez
Philadelphia Scoring: Maidana

Overall I think 2014 is going to be a great season for the Philadelphia Union. However, Portland is one of the best teams in the league and is my early pick for Supporter's Shield. Playing in Portland is no joke either, especially when there are so many new pieces trying to be fit together. Don't let whatever happens in Portland direct your opinion of this team. Good things are going to happen in 2014.