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By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) -- The Philadelphia Union reached the playoffs in just their second season in MLS.
Coach Peter Nowak is confident they can get back there despite a pair of key departures.
Entering their second year, the Portland Timbers are looking to join them.
Nowak and the re-tooled Union look to get off to a strong start Monday night when they face the Timbers for the only time in 2012.
Philadelphia finished third in the Eastern Conference at 11-8-15 last season and was eliminated by Houston on a 3-1 aggregate in the conference semifinals.
The Union appear to have the building blocks in place to improve this season, but they will have to overcome the loss of All-Star goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, who had a desire to return to his native Colombia.
That was followed weeks later by the surprising trade of Sebastien Le Toux to Vancouver for allocation money. The forward totaled 26 goals and 20 assists in two seasons with Philadelphia.
Still, Nowak feels the Union are more than capable of getting back to the postseason.
"I will disagree with somebody say we make big changes," Nowak said. "The couple of key changes that's not really changed the team formula or mentality. I think the chemistry is really good. I think we know what kind of team we have. We know with the quality we have, we can be among the contenders for the playoffs."
Zac MacMath, the fifth overall selection out of Maryland in the 2011 SuperDraft, will have the responsibility of replacing Mondragon. He was 3-0-4 with 1.07 goals-against average in eight games last year, and has extensive experience with the United States national team at various youth levels.
Lionard Pajoy will try to fill the void left by Le Toux's departure. The forward was signed from Itagui Ditaires of the Colombian first division after scoring 13 goals in 32 games last year, and he's expected to start up top with Danny Mwanga, who had seven goals and four assists in 24 games in 2011.
"We've come together. The locker room is good," midfielder Brian Carroll said. "Everybody is working hard for each other. If we can build upon last year. I think we'll be on our way to hopefully doing better than last year and hopefully winning a championship."
The Timbers enter this season looking to reach the playoffs after falling four points shy in 2011.
A slew of injuries isn't helping Portland's case for a strong start.
The Timbers are already without defenders Mamadou Danso (foot) and David Horst (hip) and forward Eddie Johnson (concussion) for the long term, while midfielder Sal Zizzo is nearing a return from a torn ACL suffered last season. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe (ankle) is questionable.
Forward Kris Boyd's ankle injury isn't considered serious, and he's expected to play.
Boyd is the Timbers' most significant acquisition, signing as a designated player after a stint with Turkey's Eskisehirspor. The forward is widely known for his exploits in his native Scotland, where he's the Premier League's all-time leading scorer with 164 goals with Kilmarnock and Glasgow Rangers.
"If you get the ball in there, he's going to get onto it nine times out of 10," Timbers coach John Spencer said. "And if you're switched off for a moment, he's going to punish you. For him, that just gives him a complete injection of confidence. And the fans can now appreciate many more games and many more goals."
Danso's 72nd-minute goal was the difference in Portland's 1-0 home victory over the Union on May 6. The teams played to a scoreless draw in Philadelphia on Sept. 10.
Updated March 11, 2012