Portland, OR (SportsNetwork.com) - The re-tooled Philadelphia Union will open their 2014 season on Saturday with a stern test as the club travels to Providence Park to battle the Portland Timbers.
Philadelphia endured an up-and-down season last time out which produced exciting wins as well as some deflating losses. The club punched above its weight for most of the season, but struggled down the stretch and missed the postseason, finishing in seventh place in the East.
Despite missing the playoffs, the club saw the emergence of a pair of young stars in striker Jack McInerney and defender Amobi Okugo.
McInerney scored 10 goals in his first 14 league contests and appeared to be heading for a Golden Boot title as the league's top goal scorer. But he ran into a massive dry spell after being called into Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. squad for the Gold Cup and didn't score again until October 12 against D.C. United.
Still, McInerney showed his scoring prowess, especially when paired with a talented hold-up forward like Conor Casey, who returns for his second season in Philadelphia after scoring 10 last year.
Okugo has become one of the brightest young American defenders. He played and started 32 games last season, anchoring a back line that posted 12 clean sheets while adding three goals.
Philadelphia's midfield was largely ineffective last year and offered little to aid the attack. The major focus of the offseason, then, was to improve the midfield dramatically.
Gone are Kleberson, homegrown player Greg Jordan and Michael Farfan, who was transferred to Cruz Azul in Mexico.
Replacing them are Corben Bone, U.S. international Maurice Edu, who arrives on loan from Stoke City in the Premier League, Cristian Maidana from Argentinos Juniors and Vincent Nogueira, who signed a two-year contract from Sochaux in France.
In defense, the Union traded veteran Jeff Parke for the top allocation spot in order to bring Edu to Philadelphia, seemingly creating a sizable void in central defense.
But the Union moved to quickly to fill that void, acquiring former MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry from Chicago in exchange for allocation money. The Union now have one of the most promising central defense partnerships in the league, along with Sheanon Williams on the right and Fabinho on the left.
Zac MacMath will start in goal, but should be pushed to maintain his starting spot by 2014 No. 1 overall draft selection Andre Blake, who became the first goalkeeper ever to be taken first overall.
Portland will open the new campaign aiming to build on a superb first season under head coach Caleb Porter. The club reached the Western Conference finals before falling to Real Salt Lake, 5-2, on aggregate.
The Timbers return several key players from last season, including Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri in midfield, along with Jack Jewsbury and Will Johnson.
Max Urruti, Frederic Piquionne and Jose Valencia are back in the forward ranks, while Michael Harrington, Pah Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso are back in defense.
The club only made a handful of new signings in the hopes that they will continue to jell and build on last season's success. But Porter added former Sounder Steve Zakuani and Gaston Fernandez to bolster the attack, while Norberto Paparatto was added in defense.
The Timbers are anchored in goal by Donovan Ricketts, who has enjoyed a career revival upon his move to Portland in 2012.
And to top it all off, the club boasts one of the most intimidating atmospheres in North American soccer - the Timbers took a total of 38 points out of a possible 51 from its home matches last season, tied with San Jose for the MLS-high.
Philadelphia and Portland met just once last season at PPL Park and played to a scoreless draw.