The first semifinal matchup of the MLS is Back Tournament is upon us and it is a matchup that is rarely seen but has a lot of anticipation behind it, Philadelphia vs Portland. We have two teams that have different styles which is going to create fireworks on the field.
The Philadelphia Union finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference last season and being easily one of hottest teams in the MLS. The Union have found their success coming from the wings and through the youngster Brenden Aaronson. This tournament has been smooth sailing so far for the Union in their two knockout round games as they only allowed two goals against them and putting four in the back of the net. The New England Revolution was the only team to give the Union any real trouble as they were only able to put one goal pass the defense but their quarterfinal round matchup against Sporting Kansas City put them as a real contender, putting three goals in the net and moving on to the semis.
Portland came into this tournament as a big surprise especially after finishing 6th last season in the Western Conference. This was considered to be one of the most interesting groups with El Trafico being in this group but despite LAFC being heavy favorites, they ended up falling second to the Timbers. The Timbers have found success through their midfield staples of Diego Chara and Diego Valeri. Their biggest shock of this tournament has been Jeremy Ebobisse who has had three goals in three games played for the team. Portland also had a struggle in the round of 16 taking on the cinderella story team, FC Cincinnati in PKs and coming out on top to them 4-2 after big saves from Steve Clark and some unfortunate misses from Cincy. Their quarterfinal matchup completely reflects their semifinal opponent as another favorite out of the East was taken apart by possession in the midfield and clinical finishing (looking at you Andy Polo). NYCFC saw themselves dispatched by Portland with relative ease which leads us to the semifinal matchup.
This matchup brings us teams with different styles but similar talents. Both have solid midfields, strong backlines, commanding keepers and shocking strikers. Looking into each matchup, we can see who the leverage will have where and how this game will pan out. Starting with the men between the posts, I give the advantage to Philadelphia. I take nothing away from what Steve Clark has helped do for the Timbers but Andre Blake has more experience with his team and his positioning and command of the ball while in the air outweighs Clark. Blake has a better upside than Clark. Goalkeeper advantage goes to Philly.
The backlines look similar but I give this advantage to Philadelphia as well. Jack Elliot is young but has so much talent with his ability to maintain possession in his own half but also his ability to distribute. Mark McKenzie also plays well alongside him and allows for the wingbacks to move up field and help build with the offense. The issue with me wanting to pick Portland is Larrys Mabiala and Jorge Villafana. Mabiala can really dictate the game because he is a giant in the air but he also causes many issues in the back because he can get caught overcommitting and has been the cause of penalty kicks in the past. Villafana provides good service from the wing but if going up against someone with pace or decent footwork, he’s going to get beat. Defense also goes to the Union.
The midfield brings the best matchup for this game. Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara and Diego Valeri have dictated the midfield for years and have plenty of experience together. Chara is up there as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league and Valeri compliments him in the attack by being able to provide great service from deep in the opponent half or from a set piece. Philadelphia have seen a resurgence in their midfielder especially with the help of Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson. But American international, Alejandro Bedoya has shown himself to be slow in the build up which in turn causes turnovers that a guy like Chara or Valeri will jump all over. The only way the Philadelphia could get more help in the midfield would be if supersub Ilsinho takes the pitch. This point goes to Portland.
Finally the attack play, Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos taking on Portlands, Ebobisse. The duo from Philadelphia has only provided two goals, both coming from Santos but these are two players that are more creators than true finishers. Portland, on the other hand, have Ebobisse who has found form as of late. The only difference here is that Ebobisse really thrives on the quality service and can be shut down in 1-on-1 situations. Pryzbylko is stronger in the air and I’ll always take a 2-on-1 situation over a 1-on-1. Striker advantage goes to Philadelphia.
I predict this game to be taken over in the midfield and the first goal will come from a defensive mishap. I think Philadelphia comes out on top 3-2 and will move on to the MLS is Back finals.