On Saturday, March 8, the Portland Timbers kick off their fourth MLS campaign against the Philadelphia Union at the newly-rechristened Providence Park. (Reports from the stadium indicate that, yes, the Timbers Army is already lining up outside Gate 3. It's Friday afternoon.)
Despite limping out of the playoffs during a semifinal loss to Real Salt Lake last year, the Timbers are riding high on confidence following a breakout season that saw 15 shutouts, a record 54 goals, and (amazingly) only 5 losses. The Timbers finished the regular season first in the Western conference, while first year head coach Caleb Porter won MLS Coach of the Year and Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri won MLS Newcomer of the Year.
This year, the Timbers will play in three major competitions: the MLS Cup, the US Open Cup, and the CONCACAF Champions League. Their unequivocal goal? Bring one of those trophies to Portland.
Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union
March, 8, 2014
7:30 p.m. Kickoff
TV: ROOT Sports
Radio: 750 AM The Game
Three of the team's offseason acquisitions, centerback Norberto Paparatto, forward Gastón Fernández, and midfielder/forward Steve Zakuani, give reason for hope. Paparatto and Fernández, both veteran Argentine players, are expected to shore up the defense and offense, respectively. Zakuani, (who played college soccer under Porter at the University of Akron) is expected to return to the form that saw him score 10 goals in 2010. Waived by rivals Seattle Sounders late last year, he's missed much of the past two seasons while recovering from injury.
One wrinkle to the season opener: the Professional Referee Organization is locked in a labor dispute with its referees, meaning the league will be forced to field a squad of replacement referees for Saturday's game. The lack of consistent officiating is already one of the most common complaints against MLS, and fans will hope to avoid last year's NFL replacement ref debacle.
Still, the good news is that the Timbers—who welcome back their core of veterans and play a dominant style of possession football—appear to have their destiny in their own hands.
Getting ready for the game? See our guide to advancing your Timbers knowledge from beginner to expert here.