by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers welcome age old foes the Seattle Sounders to JELD-WEN Field Sunday evening (6 PM, ESPN), a titanic clash of two sides whose hopes of deciding silverware this season hinge on 90 minutes and change.
While Portland’s 2-2 draw at the Vancouver Whitecaps last Sunday eliminated them from retaining the Cascadia Cup, the 4-1 trouncing the Canadians handed out in Seattle on Wednesday sets the stage for an epic contest in a storied rivalry.
If match previews were written a mere month ago, few would have predicted the predicament the Sounders find themselves in now, and only the staunchest supporters could have hoped for this opportunity to present itself to the Timbers.
To take the cup back to Seattle now the Sounders are in a must win situation, a draw no longer enough as the loss to the Whitecaps provided Portland the perfect platform to play spoiler for their fiercest opposition.
Regional bragging rights are not all that’s on the line, the stakes much higher with both teams poised to assume the lead in the Supporters Shield standings with a victory this weekend as the teams above them sit idle during the international break.
When the two teams last met in late August, the Sounders went home 1-nil winners over the visiting Timbers, a result that spurred Seattle onto a five match win streak to put them top of the table. The loss for Portland came amidst their worst stretch of the season, a spell of seven matches with only one win.
Since then the Sounders are lacking the same energy that mid-season acquisition Clint Dempsey seemed to inspire in the club at the time, and form has followed the fashion of the Designated Player’s slow to heal hamstring with only two points from the last 12 on offer.
Normally draws against the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls are points most teams will readily take, but when followed up by a double dose of ignominious defeats it is a bitter pill to swallow for Seattelites who were readying for a potential treble winning season as they basked in the afterglow of Dempsey’s arrival.
While the statistics still show a slight advantage for Seattle on all fronts, the oddsmakers will throw those numbers out the window come derby day, particularly with Portland entering the encounter on a five match unbeaten streak.
The breakdown between the teams starts at the back, where Seattle netminder Michael Gspurning is guilty of conceding 11 goals in his past four outings.
The Austrian is hardly alone in culpability for the recent defensive woes of the Sounders, but a late nutmeg by Nigel Reo-Coker to cap Vancouver’s dominance was a fitting display of the team’s current inability to keep a clean sheet.
At the opposite end of the pitch is an entirely different story, Donovan Ricketts notching clean sheets in two of his last three starts, and in spite of seeing two Camilo crackers go by him was still considered a Man of the Match candidate against the Whitecaps due to a string of outstanding saves.
While Ricketts’ stellar play is a big part of Portland’s success this season, the recent rejigging of the Portland backline is proving a masterstroke from manager Caleb Porter.
The return to fitness of Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso creates the Great Wall of Gambia with Pa Modou Kah at centerback, and Jack Jewsbury’s recovery from injury means the first choice pairing opposite Michael Harrington offers a veteran presence across the backline.
That is in sharp contrast to the revolving door in defense for the Sounders, red cards for Zach Scott in two of the last four matches leaving head coach Sigi Schmid to shake his head at a lack of discipline from one of his most experienced players.
That experience was sorely missed against the Whitecaps, and the confidence of a backline consisting of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traore, Marc Burch and DeAndre Yedlin is hardly at its high point after nine goals given up in the last two games, so Patrick Ianni could step in from the start.
For all the troubles keeping the ball out of the net Seattle is also missing an offensive spark, particularly one that can find the mark early before the team digs itself a hole.
Leading scorer Eddie Johnson and utility man Brad Evans are away on national team duty, and with the Sounders shorn of two of their most consistent performers the production needs to come from other sources.
Dempsey appears the obvious choice to shine in what could be a wet affair in the Rose City, but after only playing a bit part in an already decided defeat to Vancouver his status is still day to day with the player failing to record a full match much less suit up regularly in the past seven for the club.
Lamar Neagle and Obafemi Martins are just shy of Johnson in the team scoring charts, and while Mauro Rosales continues to distribute and create in the attack this campaign, the chemistry in the attacking third is lacking of late.
Captain Osvaldo Alonso and Andy Rose are featuring in the middle of the park more often of late, but Schmid could see Sunday as a chance to let former Timber Adam Moffat loose from long range, or try to slow the attack of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe by putting Shalrie Joseph in as a stopgap measure.
The combination of Valeri and Nagbe is proving one more difficult to contain each week, particularly with newcomer Max Urruti buzzing around the opposition box.
Portland are without Ryan Johnson and Alvas Powell both away with Jamaica, the former’s goal threat and the latter’s pace from the wingback position somewhat limiting Porter’s options, but Jose Valencia could see time should Portland need a late goal.
Rodney Wallace is also off with Costa Rica, so Kalif Alhassan is likely to start on the wing if Valeri is set to go from the opening whistle.
Skipper Will Johnson and Diego Chara will be instrumental in thwarting Seattle’s own forward forays up the middle, and which side wins the midfield battle early could determine the outcome.
The end result is far from predestined with a focused Portland preparing for the wounded animal that is Seattle. Pride, trophies, and glory are up for grabs so there will be no lack of intensity in one of the marquee matchups of the year.
The buildup to kickoff is the stuff of a broadcaster’s dreams, and all eyes will be on the Pacific Northwest as a preview of two MLS Cup contenders first try to settle a local dispute while making a claim for the top postseason seed.
No matter who wins at least one cup will find its resting place for the next year on Sunday, while the battle for the shield will see the gauntlet thrown down with only two matches to go in the season.