Eugene Rupinski, Brotherly Game) After missing the playoffs last season, the Portland Timbers have been one of the best teams so far in 2017. What's been the key to the hot start?
Will Conwell, Stumptown Footy) The key for the Timbers so far has been the side's ability to to present a versatile but balanced attack, capable of breaking teams down in a number of ways. Of course, to assemble a side just as capable on the break as they are in possession, the Timbers needed to make some upgrades after a lackluster 2016.
First came Costa Rican international David Guzman, taking over for now-retired Timbers' legend Jack Jewsbury as the Timbers' No. 6. As a defensive midfielder, Guzman is the complete package, capable of both providing a defensive stoutness to the side as well as springing the attack or even getting forward to score a goal of his own, all while showing immediate and impressive chemistry with midfield stalwart Diego Chara.
Equally important will be the contributions of new winger Sebastian Blanco. Blanco replaces young speedster Lucas Melano as the Timbers' third designated player, bringing smart, technical play to the pitch for the Timbers, along with a much needed defensive grit that Melano was never quite able to grasp. Blanco's qualities both in the attack and on defense have been readily apparent as he has already notched two assists in his first five games with the Timbers and the side should expect plenty more of that from him going forward.
tBG) This Timbers team is stacked top to bottom. Are there any weaknesses that the Philadelphia Union should look to exploit?
SF) Well, the big issue for the Timbers so far has been their back line and there is no reason to believe that Jake Gleeson and company have completely turned themselves around over this short week of preparation.
At the root of the Timbers' defensive troubles has been one major factor: injuries. The Timbers have been playing with their third and fourth choice center backs for most of the season so far and while Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum have been doing a passable job, a fit Liam Ridgewell and Gbenga Arokoyo would certainly be the side's preferences. Of course, Ridgewell remains out with a foot sprain and did not travel to Pennsylvania, and Arokoyo is out for the season with a ruptured achilles tendon. Left back Vytas has also been out, but his replacement, 18-year-old homegrown player Marco Farfan, has stepped up in a big way, putting in several strong performances as he starts his professional career.
As a result of all these injuries, the Timbers' patchwork back line is somewhat susceptible to letting gaps develop, particularly when the full backs are pressing forward down the pitch. While the presence of Guzman helps with this issue as he drops back between the center backs and allows them to develop a wider base for the side, teams have still had some joy in exploiting the space that is vacated out wide in the Timbers' end.
tBG) Ex-Union midfielder/center back Amobi Okugo is currently on the Timbers roster. Where does he fit into the scheme of things, given Portland is so deep at central defensive midfielder and center back?
SF) Okugo is certainly well liked in the clubhouse and in the community in Portland, but how he fits in to the side seems somewhat up in the air. Okugo did get the start at holding midfielder two weeks ago while Guzman was away on international duty, but his main competition as the number two choice at holding midfield, Ben Zemanski, was out with a hip injury that will also keep him out of the 18 this week as well, making it difficult at best to draw any conclusions from his inclusion in the side.
In the match against the Crew, the Timbers' lone loss of the season so far, Okugo was mostly quiet, occupying space in the center of the pitch, but generally struggling to put his stamp on it on either side of the ball. For a player who might be thought of as the Timbers' last resort as both a midfielder or a defender, that kind of performance is not going to win him more minutes in the XI, although his versatility and the Timbers' glut of injuries along the back line should certainly keep him in the 18 until the side are able to bring in reinforcements.
Injuries, suspensions, etc. : Liam Ridgewell -- Out, Vytas -- Doubtful, Zemanski -- Out, Arokoyo -- Out
Predicted lineup: Jake Gleeson; Marco Farfan, Roy Miller, Lawrence Olum, Alvas Powell; David Guzman, Diego Chara; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco; Fanendo Adi