The Portland Timbers take on their eternal enemies, the Seattle Sounders, tonight at Starfire Sports Complex in lovely Tukwila, WA as the two teams meet in U.S. Open Cup play for second year in a row. Both teams are making their 2015 Open Cup debuts in this match and, in the one-and-done format, will need to put it all on the line to advance.
Timbers fans will certainly come into this match with conflicted emotions about today's timing. On the one hand, the Timbers are coming off a week and a half long break, having had a chance to rest and recover before taking on their Cascadian Rivals. On the other hand, the Timbers come into this match with Diego Valeri on the verge of health after rolling his ankle against Toronto FC and Dairon Asprilla out for another several weeks after rolling his own ankle against the New England Revolution.
Moreover, the Timbers come into this match on the back of a three game winning streak, having beaten D.C. United, the Colorado Rapids, and New England, so the urge to balance the immediate application of that momentum and some rest after playing a number of games in quick succession also weights on this match.
Either way, the Timbers will be forced into several changes to their lineup.
The Timbers' back five are unlikely to be changed from the group that has made the Timbers one of strongest defensive teams in the league for the first half of the 2015 season, but the pair of holding midfielders in front of them -- also a huge part of the Timbers' success to date -- will be forced into a change by Will Johnson's call up to the Canadian Men's National Team and Diego Chara's red card in last year's Open Cup match between the Timbers and Sounders. In their stead the Timbers will certainly start the combination of Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive. This pair of holding midfielders are certainly complimentary, with Fochive willing to cover ground, make challenges, and join in the attack, while Jewsbury provides a calming influence, keeping his position and picking his moments to go forward or step up to make an interception.
The Timbers' four-man attack will also be forced into some changes from their recent first-choice group due to the injuries to Valeri and Asprilla. If Valeri is ready to make his return, he will almost certainly play a large part in the Timbers game plan and should get the start. If not, Gaston Fernandez is the player likely to slot into the center of the Timbers' attack. Fernandez has shown admirably for stretches of the Timbers recent matches, particularly when he holds back and plays like a No. 10 rather than leading the line as a striker alongside whomever he is paired with.
On the wings, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace seem like the probable picks as both will count as Americans for the purposes of the Open Cup, a more restrictive distinction here than in MLS. Ishmael Yartey has looked good in practice lately, but still seems to be on the outside looking in when compared to the Timbers' other options; plus, Ish would certainly take up an additional international spot on the Timbers' tournament roster.
Finally, the ongoing duel between Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti continues at the striker spot. Urruti has combined well with the rest of the Timbers' attack, provided constant pressure on opposition defenses, and even notched a goal and an assist in the last three games. Adi, however, game on as a substitute in the Timbers' last match and scored a brace in the face of harsh criticism from just about all sides in recent matches. If Fernandez gets the start it seems like a lock that Urruti will as well -- the talk of the chemistry between the two may be overblown, but it is at least somewhat accurate.
The other team involved in this one has the opposite worry from the Timbers when it comes to the timing of this match. The Timbers are coming off a long rest while the Sounders are coming off a short one, having just played out a 3-0 over FC Dallas on Saturday evening.
Like the Timbers, the Sounders carry some momentum into this match, having won three of their last four (and the one they lost was blown on two occasions by terrible refereeing), and having grabbed a hold of the top spot in the Supporters' Shield standings.
The Sounders are suffering from a number of absences and injuries as well. Osvaldo Alonso remains out with a hamstring strain that has, according to Sounder at Heart, not improved much from last week. Chad Barrett also remains out with a hamstring strain of his own, Gonzalo Pineda is still suffering from a tweaked ankle, and Marco Pappa will have just played a World Cup Qualifier for Guatamala yesterday.
Then there are the players that just don't seem very likely: Obafemi Martins, despite playing a goodly chunk of the second half against FC Dallas, is still recovering from surgery to repair his broken nose, while Chad Marshall and Clint Dempsey are not getting any younger and may be held out in anticipation of playing this weekend against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday.
This leaves the Sounders potentially putting forward a cobbled together line up of fringe players, regular substitutes, and the regulars for their excessively good side who just don't get mentioned all that much. For example: Tyrone Mears may be one of the best fullbacks in MLS, but he is far from the first name that pops up when the Sounders are mentioned.
Still, this will be a side that will be up for the match and, surprisingly, will be coming into this one with something to prove as players look to stake their claim on further first team minutes or even a potential spot in the starting XI.
First round pick Christian Roldan could prove the difference maker for the Sounders in this one and will be one of several players that the Timbers' will need to neutralize if they want to have any chance at shutting down Seattle's stupidly good attack.
Particularly if Dempsey -- and/or Martins -- gets the start, the Timbers will need to shut down creative players like Roldan who can get the ball to the Sounders' strikers in dangerous areas. Dempsey and Martins are capable of turning and eighth chance into a goal, so the Timbers will need to maintain an excellent balance between cutting out the ball and not over-committing, something that they have been good at in recent matches.
If the Timbers can slow down the Seattle attack, the Sounders' defense, which has been the best in the league this year, will be compact as they will likely look to keep the same dense block in their box and allow shots from range that are rarely going to provide an actual scoring opportunity. As they have been all year, there is no reason to think that the Sounders will not be very difficult to break down. The Timbers will need to either draw out the Seattle defense or show some real artifice in finding their chances.
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. pacific at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, WA
Portland Timbers: 6-5-4, 4th place in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 9-4-2, 1st place in the Western Conference