Philadelphia ready for JELD-WEN challenge

CHESTER, Pa. – With a roster that’s filled with many young players and newcomers, the Philadelphia Union have a lot of questions going into the 2012 campaign.

They’ll get some immediate answers as to how those players will handle a tough situation when the Union open their season at one of the toughest venues in MLS: JELD-WEN Field. The Union and host Portland Timbers meet in a nationally televised game (9:30 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes) in a First Kick showdown on Monday.

The Union are well acquainted with the kind of welcome they'll get from the Timbers' fans.

“That place is going to be crazy,” Union captain Danny Califf said of JELD-WEN. “They’re going to be flying and everything is going to be 100 miles per hour. You’re going to see the rookies [with their eyes wide].”

Califf didn’t make the trip to Portland for Philly’s fixture against the Timbers last May because of an illness, the only game of the year in which he didn’t play. With then-starting left back Jordan Harvey also sidelined, the Union gave Michael and Gabriel Farfan their first starts of the season. Although the twin brothers held up relatively well on the backline, the Union fell 1-0.

The result put them in good company, however. Fourteen teams failed to leave the Rose City with three points in 2011, and Philadelphia aren’t expecting the wins to come any easier this year.

“We expect that it’s going to be a tight game, similar to how they played us last year,” head coach Peter Nowak said. “It could be a game where one goal could decide it one way or the other. They didn’t give up many goals in the preseason, so we expect that one goal will decide it. It’s a short field, it’s a tight field, so the game could be fast. We have to be prepared for that as well.”

While he didn’t play in Portland last season, Califf still knows about Portland’s uniquely small field dimensions and the raucous Timbers Army; he played against the then-USL Timbers when he was with the LA Galaxy.

“They’re going to come with the mentality that they’re going to try to get after us,” Califf said. “It’s going to be a fast game. I think it’s going to be a very up-and-down game. That’s just their style.”

Monday’s First Kick challenge will certainly give an indication of the Union’s prospects this season. Still, there is, of course, plenty of time for Nowak’s bunch to get better throughout the year.

“There’s going to be an adjustment here and there but the chemistry is good,” Nowak said of his club. “The goal is to progress and to keep early expectations down… We know the quality we have and we think we can be contenders for the playoffs.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.