The Portland Timbers may not be able to win the Cascadia Cup in tonight's match against the Seattle Sounders, but they can at least deny the Cup to the Sounders, which is also pretty decent. There also happens to be first place in the Western Conference, as well as the inside track on the Supporter's Shield, on the line.
After achieving some measure of consistency over their last five games throughout most of the lineup, the Timbers only have three questions going into today's match.
1) Will Diego Valeri be able to start?
Valeri has been dealing with an adductor strain since the Timbers' match against Real Salt Lake at the end of August. In last Sunday's game in Vancouver, the soreness from the injury was enough to keep the Timbers from starting Valeri, limiting him to a 23' substitute appearance. Valeri did not train with the team on Wednesday and was being watched closely by Caleb Porter and the Timbers' trainers at practice on Friday when he took part in the team warmups.
2) Who will come into the line-up for Rodney Wallace?
Kalif Alhassan is the obvious choice, unless he is needed to deputize for Valeri in the middle of the pitch. In that case we could see Jose Adolfo Valencia, Ben Zemanski, or even Sal Zizzo slotted into the lineup, any of which would require a significant reshuffling of formations to make fit.
3) What "tweaks" to the team's tactics will Caleb Porter introduce against Seattle?
Both in their midweek game against Vancouver and in their away match against Colorado, the Sounders were carved open by quick, efficient counterattacks, and the temptation to call for the Timbers to do the same is a real one. At times this season the Timbers have eschewed possession in favor of direct play and, when going direct, the Timbers have gotten positive results.
Our predicted Timbers' line up: Donovan Ricketts; Michael Harrington, Pa Modou Kah, Futty Danso, Jack Jewsbury; Will Johnson, Diego Chara; Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, Jose Adolfo Valencia; Maximiliano Urruti
The Sounders, after a streak that saw them win eight games out of nine, suddenly find themselves winless in four. And they are winless in spectacular fashion, losing their last two games by a combined score of 9-2. With Seattle's sudden defensive collapse after being one of the league's stingiest teams. (Before those two games Seattle had the second fewest goals allowed in MLS; they now have the 7th.)
Perhaps the biggest question for the Sounders is who will be between the sticks when they take the field at Jeld-Wen Field. After conceding nine goals in two games, Michael Gspurning, who had previously been solid for the Sounders this year, looks like he he may have lost his confidence in goal. This has prompted speculation that 41 year old USMNT veteran Marcus Hahnemann could get his first start in regular season play since playing a pair of matches back in August. Sigi Schmidt has refused to confirm who his starting keeper will be (here).
At the other end of the pitch the Sounders have plenty of questions as well. Their biggest piece is certainly Clint Dempsey, who is coming off of a 39 minute substitute appearance against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Dempsey, however, has struggled with injuries and fitness since returning to Major League Soccer at the beginning of August. As a result, the Seattle forward, and occasional midfielder, has yet to find his rhythm, or a goal or assist, on the pitch.
Dempsey seems likely to play, but with Seattle's leading scorer, Eddie Johnson, who suffered a groin injury while on national team duty with the United States, the rest of the Sounders attack is still in question. Johnson has tormented the Timbers this year, scoring both of the Sounders' goals in the two teams' earlier meetings in March and August, so his absence will be a welcome relief.
That is not to say that the Sounders are without offensive threats. Obafemi Martins, who has tallied eight goals this season, played the full 90' against Vancouver on Wednesday and looks likely to be on the pitch against the Timbers today. Occupying his usual spot on the right flank will likely be Mauro Rosales. Rosales is the main assist provider for the Sounders, whose total of eight are approached only by Seattle's other international call-up, Brad Evans.
One potential Seattle Sounders line up from Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart: Marcus Hahnemann; Marc Burch, Djimi Traore, Patrick Ianni, DeAndre Yedlin; Adam Moffat, Osvaldo Alonso; Lamar Neagle, Clint Dempsey, Mauro Rosales; Obafemi Martins
As every player has said in every interview this week: in a derby game form goes out the window. The Sounders may have just lost two games, horribly, but they are still a talented team that will give the Timbers a serious challenge tonight. A big win for the Timbers would be great, and right now Seattle seem capable of wilting under the slightest pressure, but expecting anything other than the second place team in the Western Conference to show up would be a mistake.
Watch it on: ESPN
Kick off: 6:00 pm at Jeld-Wen Field
Portland Timbers: 50 points (3rd place in the Western Conference)
Seattle Sounders: 51 points (2nd place in the Western Conference)