Coming off a breakthrough season in which they finished on top in the Western Conference, the Portland Timbers are hoping to take the next step toward winning their first MLS Cup.
They'll try to get off to a strong start on their home field Saturday night against the Philadelphia Union, who retooled their squad after missing the postseason for the second straight year.
Caleb Porter enters his second season after guiding the club to a 23-point turnaround and first playoff appearance en route to MLS Coach of the Year honors.
The Timbers (14-5-15) reached the West finals before falling to Real Salt Lake by a combined 5-2 margin.
The fourth-year franchise has welcomed back three of its four double-digit scorers - including playoffs - in Will Johnson (11 goals), Diego Valeri (11) and Darlington Nagbe (10). After finishing third in the league with 54 goals, they've also brought in Gaston Fernandez to play a key role in front.
Maximiliano Urruti will be expected to fill in with forward Rodney Wallace (seven goals) out until mid-summer following knee surgery. Steve Zakuani has been training with the squad but isn't likely to be available in the opener.
Porter got to see the new combination for the first time with Valeri - the league leader with 13 assists last season - playing his attacking midfielder role behind Fernandez, Urruti and Nagbe in last Saturday's 1-all draw with Vancouver in the preseason finale.
"It feels good to know that this week the game means something," Porter told the league's official website. "You can spin that all you want and get the guys to approach (the preseason) as a real game, but until it is a real game, you're not going to get your best."
The new-look Union (12-12-10) hope to bring their best after a bid to reach the 2013 playoffs ended in disappointment on the final day of the season.
They've since shifted to a 4-3-3 formation in an effort to better dominate possession and improve an attack that ranked in the league's bottom third with 42 goals.
Philadelphia also added Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana to bolster the midfield behind star forward Jack McInerney.
McInerney finished tied for seventh in the league with a career-high 12 goals, while Conor Casey scored 10. Casey, however, will likely be out after missing the preseason due to a calf strain.
Austin Berry, acquired from Chicago in February, shores up the center of the defense alongside Amobi Okugo, who took a major step forward last season. Fullback Sheanon Williams, though, may be unable to play after suffering a quad strain during the preseason.
The Union have gone 0-2-2 in four all-time meetings, with both losses coming in Portland by a combined 4-1 margin.
"They're a dangerous team, they've obviously been coached well for the last year, and they're even stronger now," Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath said. "We know they're a good team, a team that we're going to have to stay disciplined against, and we'll have to give it our best effort."
The Timbers only lost twice in 21 games at home last season, including the playoffs and U.S. Open Cup.
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