This derby is unique to the history so far of Seattle v Portland derbies in Major League Soccer.
Previously there has been a strong undercurrent of big and little brother to it. In 2011, Portland were the new entrants into a league, with all the wide-eyed and bushy-tailness that comes with being an expansion side. Sounders by then were in year three.
That advantage was less pronounced by 2012 but throughout their subsequent meetings, Sounders had a points advantage in the standings which made them strong favourites on most occasions. They also had better players.
This year the game comes too early for the traditional three game minimum to even print a league table (although the Canadian press seem to have strangely abandoned that tradition this year).
Secondly, Montreal have by and large nullified any presumption that arriving in MLS later is a significant disadvantage.
Thirdly, any apparent disparity between the sides’ relative playing strengths has been clouded by the number of high profile departures in Seattle, and high profile arrivals in Portland.
But if Sounders fans were lacking the normal self confidence with which they approach Portland games, 45 mad minutes on Tuesday night has radically altered their demeanour.
After 225 scoreless minutes, Sounders retook the field against Mexican side Tigres seeking to overhaul a 2-0 aggregate deficit. They had received a boost just before the interval when Manuel Viniegra foolishly kicked the ball away to prevent a quick free kick being taken. Already on a yellow for the same offence seven minutes earlier, referee Elmer Bonilla applied the letter of the law and produced a second yellow.
That may have altered head coach Sigi Schmid’s half time team talk and his side came out energised.
From being a team whose forwards had been unable to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo, they turned into a side whose defenders smashed spectacular long distance goals.
The red card may have transformed the game, but the goals still have to be scored and there was nothing inevitable about Sounders’ win. They earned it. Nothing was handed to them.
The influence of that result on their emotions entering the Timbers game were noted by Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid after the match:
“It feels a lot better transitioning into it coming off of this win. It makes it a little bit easier for everybody tomorrow. Portland is a big game, they’ll get up for it, we just have to see where we’re at with our injuries and with who steps on the field.”
One of those injuries is Brad Evans. Evans left the field against Tigres when the side was two goals down on aggregate.
Although the match announcers, perhaps prematurely, suggested that he was being saved for the Portland game, Evans’ leg was well iced up as he sat on the bench and watched events unfold. Schmid revealed it was a calf strain and yesterday revealed that Evans will not make it for this Saturday.
That does not help a Seattle side that has already stretched its resources as we outlined in an article after the first leg.
Evans was one of three outfielders who had played all 180 minutes, although you can include Martinez with his 179. Jhon Hurtado and Eddie Johnson have now played all 270.
There are few options that do not represent a significant shortfall in quality.
Zach Scott is still a natural full back who can fill in at centre half, and Sammy Ochoa is simply not as good a player as Johnson. Scott at least is well versed in these derbies and his focus and concentration are, notwithstanding a failed offside trap in Mexico, reliable.
Behind even the ever presents, there are still some highly used talents.
Mauro Rosales has started all three games logging 212 minutes. Martinez has played 215. Evans’ early departure leaves his contribution at 207. This is all since March 2nd. It may be a stretch too far for Rosales but Martinez is younger.
Steve Zakuani put in 83 good minutes on Tuesday but with a season total of just 152, may be ready to go on Saturday. Alex Caskey sat on the bench and will bring some freshness and an admirably cool head for someone so young. It may be needed. This is a derby after all.
However, the next most used outfielder of all is left back Leo Gonzalez who has played all but six minutes of the season, and had arguably been playing his best Sounders football yet. Marc Burch is a ready made replacement if Gonzalez needs a break but Schmid may be tempted to keep pushing a man so obviously in form. It’s a tough choice.
The good news is that three key players, keeper Mike Gspurning, Djimi Traore, and Osvaldo Alonso do not bring any fatigue worries yet.
Alonso will be figuratively salivating at the prospect of some fresh Timbers dogs in the yard to push about and Portland’s new Argentinian playmaker Diego Valeri can expect to be fouled hard shortly after his first touch. Maybe even before it. Probably at exactly the same time.
Adam Johansson’s injury gives Schmid the pleasure of not even having to worry about the right back slot with the silver quick emergence of DeAndre Yedlin.
Suddenly, the bow-tied wonder is one of the first names on the team sheet.
For their part, the Timbers will point out that Sounders beat ten men with little experience of playing on turf, or playing at all given the number of youths Tigres head coach Ricardo Ferretti selected.
With one point out of six from two home games, the Oregonians have had a poor start although some of the new charges, like Michael Harrington and Ryan Johnson, have displayed well in pre-season.
A great deal may depend on creating enough space around Diego Valeri, either to allow him to flourish, or sucking in enough defenders to free up a newer more aggressive Darlington Nagbe.
Despite the long term injuries to Brent Richards and Bright Dike, Portland have decent forward firepower in Ryan Johnson, Jose Valencia, and Frederic Piquionne. The latter is fit and available for selection. He may well be the dark horse in this derby. If he plays, his battle with Djimi Traore will be fascinating and possibly decisive.
But it is Diego Valeri who should trouble Schmid most and the Sounders head coach noted that the Argentinian arrival brings a new form of attacking threat the Timbers had not previously tried..
“With Valeri, they’re playing with a playmaking, whether you call it a number 10 or a playmaking second forward, an “enganche” as they call it in Argentina. He’s a talented player.
In the past, Portland has always played with two strikers and usually it’s with two strikers high.So it was more of a traditional 4-4-2. Now they’re out of that and Valeri has cover behind him. He’s got Will Johnson and Chara who can do all the defensive work for him. So he really has a lot of freedom offensively. As a second forward, he’s going to score goals, which he did the first week. He scored a great goal.
So the problem he presents is that he’s a forward in disguise who lays off the front line and looks for that space behind your central midfield in front of your center backs, so it’s just (a matter of) coordination between the defensive midfielder, in our case Alonso, and the center backs.
It’s really important picking up Valeri so he doesn’t have a free reign.”
So you can add Valeri versus Alonso to Traore versus Piquionne or Ryan Johnson as perhaps key battles.
Sounders have a strength at left wing. Portland’s Ryan Miller at right back has not been as impressive as Michael Harrington on the other side. Expect Sounders to channel the ball leftwards.
You can also expect former Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson to be highly up for this one, given the tousy nature of his past battles with the Seattle Sounders.
We confidently expect referee Kevin Stott to be busy and produce cards like Hallmark.
He took charge of the fiery second leg Western Conference semi final between San Jose and LA Galaxy last year, where he handed out his first card to Victor Bernardez as early as the fourth minute.
With both sides deprived of the luxury of surrounding him, which side keeps their discipline during the run of play may be crucial.
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