It is time for the first true rivalry match of the year in Cascadia as the Portland Timbers host the Seattle Sounders tomorrow at Providence Park. The Timbers have not yet won a game this season and are coming off two tough losses on the road, while the Sounders are coming off a loss at home to MLS's hottest team, the Columbus Crew. Both sides will undoubtedly be hoping that this weekend's match will jump start a push to the top of the table.
The Timbers come into this weekend missing several vital players and nearly all of the width in their attack. Rodney Wallace, who was capable of stretching defense and bulldozing through defenders in 2013, is still missing thanks to a torn ACL and offseason knee surgery, while the man brought in over the offseason to give the team width, Steve Zakuani, is struggling with a tight hamstring. Zakuani could be available for this weekend, but with practices closed down, the Timbers are not dropping any hints.
Darlington Nagbe is in a similar situation to Zakuani, having picked up an unspecified knock against FC Dallas last Saturday that looked suspiciously like a hamstring strain. There have been precious few hints about Nagbe's status for tomorrow. He has the ability to bounce back quickly from injuries but this seems like a stretch even for Nagbe and could see the Timbers go without one of their most dangerous and most consistent players. If neither Nagbe nor Zakuani can start, expect to see the first start for Kalif Alhassan this season after a good shift in the second half against Dallas last week.
All this will leave the Timbers looking to the recently improving play of Diego Valeri to take the game to Seattle. Valeri has struggled in the first games of 2014 as he looks to get back to the pre-injury form that was a large part of his Newcomer of the Year win. Through four games Valeri leads the league in shots taken with fifteen and, after Erick Torres, has the second highest percentage of shots on goal with 40%, so he is getting close. Unfortunately, so far his close has not been close enough as he is the only player in the top five for shots taken without at least two goals. Valeri, like the rest of the team, is very close to breaking through to his old form and at this point it is a matter of inches rather than a matter of feet that will get him there.
At the other end of the pitch, the Timbers will be relieved to have gotten through the week with their back-line intact. Michael Harrington had the odd red card issued to him against FC Dallas rescinded yesterday by an independent panel convened by the MLS Disciplinary Committee after the Timbers filed a joint appeal with Dallas. That, along with the lack of a suspension for Pa Modou Kah, will give the Timbers the ability to play with the same back line two games in a row for just the second time this year.
As always, however, the fate of the match will rest on the shoulders of the Timbers' stalwart midfield pair, Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Johnson, who was among the team's top goalscorers last season as he put up career numbers from the holding midfield position, has curtailed his runs forward so far this season. Instead he has acted as an anchor at the base of the defense more often than not. It has seen his passing accuracy go up, the only player with more than one start for whom it has done so, but his shooting, usually from further out than last year, has been markedly off target.
In contrast, Diego Chara has been given a much more free-roaming role so far this season and will likely be deployed as a man-marker on one of Seattle's most dangerous players, Clint Dempsey. This increased freedom, while Johnson acts as more of a shield in front of the defense, has lead to Chara getting forward regularly, but he tends to lead the break, rather than trailing it like Johnson did so effectively last year. The new dynamic in the center of the pitch has not yet proven its effectiveness, but against a team like Seattle that will look to play the ball through Dempsey it could bare fruit.
Sounder at Heart
Sounder at Heart
For the Sounders no player has made the impact in such limited time as Dempsey. In just two games this year he already has a goal and an assist, and has demanded an inordinate amount of attention from opposing sides. Despite his slow start to his return to MLS in 2013, Dempsey remains a skillful and creative player with a nose for goal. Unlike last season, however, he is being deployed in his most natural position at forward, rather than being asked to play as an attacking midfielder.
Dempsey's return will mean that one of the Sounders other forwards, Lamar Neagle, Obafemi Martins, and Kenny Cooper, will need to make way. Martins, with speed to burn, will certainly be retained to test the Timbers back line which, so far, has been susceptible to quick, physical forwards. With Dempsey and Martins on the pitch, the Sounders will likely look to Lamar Neagle to fill in the third spot in their attacking trio. Although not the same goal-scorer as Cooper, Neagle is a high-energy, high-workrate player who will provide excellent pressure on the Timbers' back line and track back on defense. Sigi Schmid has also been known to push Neagle out wide as a left midfielder, although in this case he will likely play as a wing forward.
While the TImbers managed to avoid suspensions along their backline this week, the Sounders were not so lucky and will be without Djimi Traore in the center of the defense for tomorrow's match. The Sounders will still have veteran MLS defender Chad Marshall in the center of the defense, but who will partner with him is still a big question. The best bet looks to be Jalil Anibaba, who brings speed an excellent tackling to the center of the pitch for the Sounders.
The Sounders will also be without their second most consistent midfielder, Brad Evans. Evans has been dealing with a calf strain that held him out of Wednesday night's match between the USA and Mexico. Instead the Sounders will need to bring in Andy Rose, who has been serviceable in his three years with the team, but is a significant drop off from Evans. The lack of Evans will leave Osvaldo Alsono with even more ground to cover and could open space in the center of the pitch for the Timbers.
Timbers Keys to the Match
- Get Alonso a yellow card. The player who really debuted the hack-a-Nagbe strategy, the Timbers will need to get him under control early whether Nagbe is available or not. Use whatever means necessary.
- Johnson needs to step up. Both figuratively and literally, the Timbers' captain needs to be the rock in the center of the pitch for this team. He has been unfairly blamed for the slow start this year, but someone is going to have to jump start this team and there is no better player for it than Will Johnson.
- Cover along the back line. The Sounders have a number of pacey players and the back line will need to be on the same page if they are going to shut them down.
Watch it on: NBC Sports
Kick off: 12:00 pm at Providence Park
Portland Timbers: 0-2-2, 7th in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 2-2-0, 4th in the Western Conference