The most contentious of the Cascadian rivalries kicks off its 2015 edition on Sunday when the Portland Timbers head up north to take on the Seattle Sounders. Both teams will be looking to escape the tightly bunched pack in the middle of the Western Conference.
Coming off a solid second half turnaround against New York City FC last weekend, the Timbers come into this game off a win, a historically shaky place for the team to be. Now in their fifth season in MLS, the Timbers have yet to string together three consecutive wins in league play.
Of course, the Timbers are not going for three in a row here. Just back to back wins would certainly suffice. The Timbers did manage back to back wins three times in 2014, but overall only posted a record of 3-3-5 in matches following wins, just 1.27 points per game and not a recipe for making the playoffs. It is a pattern that has seemingly continued this season as the Timbers have followed up their only other win of the season, Week 5's 3-1 win over FC Dallas, with an embarrassing 2-0 home loss to expansion side Orlando City FC.
For the Timbers, however, it is about looking forward, not back.
Coming up against a Seattle side that are weak in the back but undeniably a terror up front, the Timbers will need to put in a comprehensive effort in today's match if they want to get the better of Seattle in CenturyLink. While the Timbers have certainly seen results from late-game adjustments, most notably against New York last week, the Sounders are not a team that they will want to give a half-hour head start.
For that to happen the Timbers will need to get Darlington Nagbe involved in the match early and often. The Timbers' playmaker in the absence of Diego Valeri, Nagbe's ability to draw defenders and create space for the rest of the Timbers attack (as broken down by Chris here) will be key in this match.
It looks likely that the Timbers will go with a similar look to what we saw against New York, deploying two attack-minded players out on the wings in Dairon Asprilla and Ishmael Yartey. On the wider pitch at CenturyLink, 75 yards rather than Yankee Stadium's hotly debated 70, the Timbers should be able to spread the defense out and get either speedster into one on one situations as they attack from the outside.
The biggest question mark in the attack, of course, remains Fanendo Adi. The Timbers' big man started out the season strong with three goals in four games, but has faded since, making a mess of several chances in last weekend's match against New York. While Maximiliano Urruti is waiting in the wings to take over for Adi, today's match could benefit the big man as he will be facing off against the centerback pairing of Zach Scott and Brad Evans with Chad Marshall suspended by the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
Adi has been at his best when asked to hold the ball up or when allowed to run at players, rather than when he is forced to create his own chances in the box while surrounded by defenders. While Marshall might have been Adi's equal when it comes to physicality, neither Scott nor Evans possess the Defender of the Year's combination of strength and deft tackling ability. In concert with the potential for more spread out play on the longer, wider pitch, Adi could certainly bounce back in this one.
If the attack will benefit from the larger pitch, the Timbers defense will almost certainly suffer for it. With Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana needing to get up the pitch and provide width for the attack, it will often fall to Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers to shift out and fill in for their fullbacks when Seattle are on the break, as situation in which they excel.
The pairing of Borchers and Ridgewell remain the Timbers best option, despite their continued gaffs at the back. The pair generally make the right decision and generally get things right, but their remains a somewhat baffling lack of communication between the two at key moments. For the Timbers to come away from this match with a result, the Timbers will need to lock in their defense and the Borchers-Ridgewell pairing is, literally and figuratively, at the center of that.
While locking down the defense is vital for the Timbers, the Sounders have plenty of players in the attack who are capable of making that difficult for them. Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, probably the best attacking partnership in MLS, highlight the attack, but they are complimented by players like Lamar Neagle, who scored a pair of goals in the Sounders' 3-1 win over the Colorado Rapids last week, and Marco Pappa, who is equally capable of scoring or playing a defense unlocking ball from his position out on the wing.
Martins and Dempsey are job one, however. Dempsey -- "Deuce" -- has scored three goals and provided three assists in the five games he has played so far this season. Martins has scored four goals in five games and recently did this.
To shut down the most dangerous men in MLS, the Timbers will need some big contributions from their central midfield of Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara. While the balance between the Timbers' midfielders has always been important to the team's success and failure, that balance will be at the core of today's match. The Timbers will need to find time to press high if they want to create chances for their speedy attacking players, but they cannot abandon the middle of the pitch and allow Seattle to run at their defense unmolested.
Often this season the Timbers have erred too far in one direction or the other, either pressing too hard and leaving their defense without its midfield shield or sitting back and isolating their attack up the pitch without support. If the Timbers can get the balance right, however, they could not only neutralize Seattle's biggest threats, they could expose its biggest weakness.
The backline of Evans and Marshall is an impressive one, even with Evans' recent conversion to the position. The backline of Scott and Evans is significantly less so. Much like the Timbers, the Sounders will need to get significant contributions from the core of their midfield, Oswaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda.
Just as the Timbers will need to be wary of giving the Sounders space in which to operate, they will also need to look for and exploit the space left by the Sounders. By putting pressure on the Sounders high up the pitch, the Timbers can do more than just find those pockets of space, they can create them. Scott is certainly not a celebrated passer and while Evans is better on the ball, his positional instincts are not always correct along the back line.
Missing from all this is the Timbers' best player, Diego Valeri. Now back in full training with the team, Timbers fans are undoubtedly pining for Valeri's return. It is possible that the Timbers will include Valeri in the 18 for today's match. It is even possible that he could make a late substitute appearance. Caleb Porter carefully avoided telling the press if either of those things were going to happen when he last addressed them on Friday. He did allude to the fact that the turf at CenturyLink is not quite of the same quality as that of Providence Park and the Timbers' training grounds.
That being said, if Diego Valeri is fit to play even a short amount of time, then the Timbers have to put him on the bench. Returning from an ACL tear, Valeri will be rusty, he won't have the same connection, his passes, shots, and dribbling might be off. But he will still be Valeri and Valeri is very good..
Watch it on: FOX Soccer 1
Kickoff: 6:30 pm pacific at CenturyLink Park in Seattle, WA
Portland Timbers: 2-2-3, 8th place in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 3-2-1, 4th place in the Western Conference