Back in June, prior to the last time the Seattle Sounders visited Portland, the Sounders were at the low point of their season. They had failed to win six straight games, a slump that was about to be extended by another game, thanks to goals from David Horst and Kris Boyd.
Since that loss at Jeld-Wen Field, Seattle has lost just one match, going 6-1-4, climbing from fourth to second in the Western Conference standings. The Portland Timbers have fared somewhat less well during that span.
Now, the quality of Seattle's opponents during that span should be considered, as five of their six wins have come against Chivas USA, the Colorado Rapids, and the reeling Vancouver Whitecaps. They have settled for draws against the likes of RSL, New York, New England, and Dallas.
But two big reasons for their turnaround have been the return of Michael Gspurning and the (re)emergence of Eddie Johnson. We went into some detail about Eddie Johnson on Tuesday; today we'll look a little closer at goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.
Earlier this week Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart gave 'Gspurning' in answer to our own Geoff Gibson's question "Who is one player expected to start for Seattle that Timbers fans might not recognize but makes a huge impact?" Gspurning was recovering from a hip injury the last time the Sounders visited Portland, which is why Clark figured we didn't know about him. Clark rightfully raved about every aspect of his game.
The Austrian netminder already has six clean sheets despite having played in just 14 games this season, allowing just ten goals and going 10-2-2. He has only twice allowed more than a single goal in a game. Over Seattle's past three matches, two wins and a draw, Gspurning contributed 13 saves while allowing four goals.
But he's done more than just stop shots. Many fans doubted the native German speaker could fill the shoes of whiny color commentator Kasey Keller, and certainly Timbers fans hoped the Seattle defense would suffer greatly from the change. Sadly for us, Gspurning has more than matched the legend he replaced.
"He's been solid, his organization is good for us, as well," Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid said after the Sounders' 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on August 18, a match in which Vancouver failed to produce a single shot. "He's a tremendous asset for our team, not just in what he can do as a goalkeeper, but in the voice he brings to the field."
That's not to say the Seattle defense has been completely lost without him. The winless streak notwithstanding, the defense allowed 18 goals in 13 matches without him -- those aren't terrible numbers, but they certainly aren't close to what they've accomplished with Gspurning between the sticks.
Gspurning's size and confidence when leaving his comfort zone should be counted among his assets as well. The lanky Grazer can routinely get himself high to powerfully punch out aerial crosses, helping overcome the glaring weaknesses evident in guys like Patrick Ianni and Zach Scott. That means Scott and Ianni can focus on what they do best -- namely, ruthlessly hack opposing attackers.
All in all, it would appear scoring against this Sounders team might prove more difficult than it was in June. But as we all know, derbies have a tendency to confound expectations.