It is the Portland Timbers versus the Seattle Sounders; year in and year out there is no larger match in Major League Soccer. Now, with the Timbers hoping to edge into a playoff spot and the Sounders trying for a more definitive grasp on first place in the race for the Supporters Shield, both teams will come into tomorrow's game desperately wanting to take three points off of their rivals.
As soon as the final whistle blew in the Timbers 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution, the team was looking forward, past the mid-week CONCACAF Champions League game against Alpha United, to their match against the Sounders. With that match in mind, the Timbers left home ten of their big first team contributors.
Getting players like Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Will Johnson, who have collectively missed fifteen minutes of the last five league matches, will ensure that the Timbers are fresh and ready to go. Having the team well rested and prepared, particularly in light of Seattle's recent struggles with fatigue, will be a significant advantage for the Timbers.
Another player left home from the Guyana trip was Darlington Nagbe. Having recently returned to the Timbers' 18 after missing two games due to a knee injury, Nagbe played 37 minutes against the Revolution as a substitute before being back at 100%. Now, according to Caleb Porter after yesterday's practice, Nagbe is approaching full strength and will hopefully be back and ready to torment DeAndre Yedlin on the Sounders' flank, something at which he has excelled in the past.
Equally as important is the Timbers defense. Facing off against a Sounders side packed with attacking weapons, the continuing improvement of Liam Ridgewell will be vital to the Timbers' success. Although he was on the bench for the Timbers' last match against the Sounders, Ridgewell has yet to lead the Timbers back line against Seattle.
The Timbers will need to be organized against an attack that features Obafemi Martins, who excels at running off the back shoulder of defenders and stretching the field for his teammates or Clint Dempsey, whose one-two passing is the envy of the league.
Since Ridgewell arrived with the team and was inserted into the starting line up, that level of organization has improved. Although the Timbers did give up three goals to the LA Galaxy three weeks ago, the team has only given up 1.4 goals per game, a marked improvement over their 1.625 mark for the season overall.
For their part the Sounders will be looking to mix it up against the Timbers. Osvaldo Alonso and his midfield partner Gonzalo Pineda will play the Timbers hard and look to shut down players like Valeri and Gaston Fernandez before they can start the attack.
Neither player is as prolific with their fouling as the Timbers' Chara, who again leads the league in fouls committed, but neither is as judicious with their fouls either, with the pair earning a yellow for every 5.23 fouls committed, while Chara has only received a yellow for every 10.33 fouls committed.
The Timbers will have to be wary of the pair's physical play, particularly with Nagbe returning from an injury, but with the Timbers' penchant for drawing fouls it would not surprise to see either player in danger of seeing red this match.
Behind the Sounders' midfield pairing, the Timbers will be facing off against a back line that has been in flux recently thanks to a mixture of injuries and transfers that have contributed to the Sounders' recent lack of form. However, the lineup that the Timbers will face is the first-choice defensive group for Seattle. Chad Marshall is back from his car crash-related injuries, Yedlin has returned to the Sounders after hashing out his "delayed transfer" to Tottenham.
Marshall, in particular, has been a difference maker for the Sounders this year, shutting down any sort of aerial traffic into the Sounder's box with ease. Compared to the tall but wiry centerback pairing of Ridgewell and Norberto Paparatto that the Timbers have been running out recently who are solid but not unbeatable in the air, Marshall has the mass, strength, and awareness to beat anyone in the league to a ball in the air.
At the far end of the pitch, the main attacking duo of the Sounders, Dempsey and Martins, will be relishing a chance to take on the Timbers again. During the two teams' first match up of the year Dempsey was in fine form and scored a hat-trick as the Sounders came back from a 4-2 deficit to tie the match.
In the second match of the year it was Martins who was a game-changer for the Sounders, opening up the field for the Sounders with his insertion in the match's second half. Although he did not get onto the score sheet in that match, it was undoubtedly Martins who changed the game for Seattle.
Shutting down Dempsey, Martins, and their supporting cast, which includes familiar faces in Portland Kenny Cooper and Chad Barrett, will be a formidable task for the Timbers and will require a full match's concentration from the Portland back line and midfield, tracking their movement on every play and covering the holes opened by their runs.
Watch it on: ESPN2
Kickoff: 2:00 PM PT at Providence Park
Portland Timbers: 7-7-10, 6th place in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 13-7-3, 1st place in MLS (in a four-way tie)