The Timbers come into this one having seen their momentum from the team's first ever four game MLS win streak come to a screeching half with a 5-0 loss to the LA Galaxy; a win here against their rivals could see the Timbers regain their footing an continue their rise up the ranks of the West, while a loss could see the confidence that the Timbers were playing with until their loss on Wednesday completely evaporate.
For the Sounders, who remain on top of the West despite losing four of their last five matches in all competitions including the disastrous 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to the Timbers that saw Clint Dempsey suspended and Obafemi Martins injured, this match is all about proving that they can get things back on track without their big stars and stay competitive despite their current rocky patch. A win here keeps the Sounders in first, while a loss potentially sees them get passed up at the top as their stretch without Martins and Dempsey continues.
For the Portland Timbers, this match is all about moving forward, both mentally and tactically. While the Timbers' attack seemed to get it together for the duration of the team's recent winning streak, they are far from the free-scoring group that struck fear into their opponents for much of the 2014 season. In 2015 the Timbers have scored a paltry 17 goals in 17 games played, putting the team on track to finish the season with 34 goals; granted, the Timbers are trending up, having scored seven goals in their last five MLS matches, but the 2014 season saw the team score 61 goals in 34 matches.
At the heart of the Timbers struggles this year has been the absence of Diego Valeri. First missing while recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in the final match of the 2014 season, then out again after a badly rolled ankle in Toronto, Valeri has only played 307 minutes in six games this season. After a hot start to his return, scoring a goal in his first start of the season and tallying an assist in his second, Valeri has yet to get on the score sheet again.
There is no guarantee that Valeri will get the start here, Gaston Fernandez could take the No. 10 spot with Valeri having played 70 minutes on Wednesday, but it seems likely that with the Maestro returning to full fitness he will be on the pitch. The Timbers are at their best when Valeri is at his best, of that there can be no doubt, and Valeri needs to get on the pitch and get in his flow if he is going to be the player that Timbers fans are hoping for once again.
Of course, Valeri is not the only player that the Timbers have been missing who will play a part in this one. Will Johnson, the team captain, missed much of the season after breaking his leg in Toronto last September. Since making his return, however, Johnson has looked like a vital part of the Timbers' midfield, with the major knock against him being that his ongoing recovery has precluded him from playing every game for the Timbers, including Wednesday's match in LA.
In a roundabout way, Johnson is almost as important to the Timbers' ability to get forward and play effectively in the attack as Valeri. When he is lined up alongside Diego Chara in one of the Timbers' holding midfield spots, Johnson brings several important attributes to bare: an impeccable sense of balance with Chara, dangerous long passes that allow the Timbers to switch the field of play quickly, and the late arriving runs in the box that saw him -- penalties notwithstanding -- score fifteen goals in the MLS regular season since joining the Timbers.
The probable return of Johnson and Valeri, together, to the Timbers lineup comes at an excellent time as the Timbers get set to face the Sounders. While Seattle is a team that is capable on the counter, they are nothing near as dangerous as they are with Dempsey and Martins on the pitch. Without their ability to break down the pitch at any moment and be a credible scoring threat, the Sounders' propensity for dropping off and allowing opponents to play with the ball in their half changes from a positive, creating space for their forwards in which to work, to a negative as teams pin them back and work the ball around the pitch.
Valeri and Johnson, better than anyone else in a Timbers uniform, can move the ball around the pitch and pull defenses out of position, opening up spaces for the Timbers to exploit, something the team has struggled with this season. If the Timbers can assert themselves on the Sounders this way, and stay solid defensively, this could be an excellent opportunity for the Timbers to rediscover their ability in the attack.
Defensively there is much less to say about the Timbers. Although they gave up five goals and Liam Ridgewell to LA and a stupid red card, the Timbers remain a solid defensive team, having shut out their opposition in seven of their 17 matches this season.
Norberto Paparatto should step in for Ridgewell and will provide an aggressive presence in the Timbers' defense while Nat Borchers drops back and provides the Timbers with interceptions and recoveries along the back line. The Timbers will still need to be wary of players like Lamar Neagle, who has repeatedly shown his ability to score form just about anywhere on the pitch if given an inch of space, and Chad Barrett.
The Sounders' will likely have a very defensive look in this match, pressuring uncharacteristically high up the pitch with forwards much more known for their work rate than the currently missing Dempsey and Martins. The Timbers will need to be on the watch for their harrying presence, particularly after struggling with the high pressure that LA put them under mid-week, but this increased defensive focus will come with a blunting of Seattle's previously razor sharp attack.
Until last week the Sounders lead the West in scoring, having tallied 23 goals fifteen games in. Fourteen of those goals, just under two-thirds of their output, came from the forward combo of Dempsey and Martins. Since losing their two forwards, the Sounders have been shut out in both of their last two games by teams pinning them back in their end.
The Sounders certainly have a number of other scoring threats, Neagle and Barrett are competent MLS forwards and Marco Pappa is capable of bending in a ball from distance, but perhaps the biggest one that the Timbers should be watching for is on set-pieces. Going direct, Pappa has bent in several impressive balls over the years, while on indirect service Chad Marshall is an absolute monster. Although he has been less prolific in recent season, Marshall is capable of scoring with his head, but also specializes in knocking the ball down in the box for his forwards to finish, something the Timbers have struggled with at times.
On defense, Marshall the only unit in MLS that can boast more shutouts (8) than the Timbers. Marshall and the Sounders other defenders have played a huge role in that, but much of the credit has to go to the shot-stopping of Stefan Frei in goal for Seattle. The league leader in saves, Frei has come up huge for the Sounders time and again, even keeping them in their recent loss against he Philadelphia Union, saving a penalty early in the match.
Watch it on: FOX Sports 1
Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 7-6-4, 5th place in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 9-4-2, 1st place in the Western Conference