It is that special time of year once again; the playoffs are coming up, points are at a premium, and the Portland Timbers are headed up north for a pivotal match against their Cascadia rivals the Seattle Sounders.
With the Sounders dipping below the red line for the first time since they started their slide down the table back in June and the Timbers looking to put some space between themselves and the pursuing pack, both teams have everything to play for in this one. For the Timbers a point or three puts them in good standing, while for the Sounders anything less than a win could signify dark days ahead for the side.
For the Timbers the ghost of away games past looms large over today's match. With some significant pieces missing from the team's first choice lineup, the Timbers will have a worried eye on their recent road results, only a win in Utah against Real Salt Lake and a scoreless draw in California against the San Jose Earthquakes removed from the worst run of away form in the club's short MLS history.
A result here in Seattle would banish those lingering doubts, however, and leave the Timbers in good stead as they make their final push through the ranks for what will be *knock on wood* the club's second appearance in the playoffs since joining the league.
Of course the player that will miss the match, Diego Chara, and that will probably miss the match, Will Johnson, are the cornerstones of this team. Playing without the Timbers' first choice midfield pairing will not drastically affect the way that the Timbers approach the game, welcoming the Sounders to attack and looking for quick, incisive attacks from the front four attacking players, but it will very much affect that midfield pairing works.
Chara, suspended for his elbow to the neck of Erick Torres in last week's match against the Houston Dynamo, and Johnson, likely out due to accumulated soreness in his recently healed leg, have traditionally worked as a balanced pair of box to box players. Their replacements, Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive, will have a very different dynamic. Where Chara and Johnson should ideally look like a see-saw as they balance each other up and down the pitch, Jewsbury and Fochive will look more like a tetherball, with Jewsbury primarily staying in front of the Timbers' back line and Fochive buzzing about the field, looking to make tackles, disrupt plays, and generally make a nuisance of himself before springing up field to join the attack when the Timbers are able to turn Seattle over.
While Johnson's status is not completely certain just yet -- Porter alluded to him being a game time decision -- the Timbers' back six looks mostly set. Where there is some uncertainty is in the Timbers' front four.
The Timbers have favored a single forward setup for the entirety of Caleb Porter's stint as the team's head coach and that does not look to change any time soon. Unfortunately, with the Timbers' summer pick up of Argentine youngster Lucas Melano and the goal scoring exploits of leading scorer Fanendo Adi, the Timbers are faced with a choice as to which of their talented forwards will lead the line.
There is another option, however. Melano can slot in on either wing as well as up top, bringing even more of the Timbers' attacking firepower to bare. The Timbers have yet to deploy the combination of Melano and Adi this way from the start of a match, giving Melano starts up top or substitution appearances out on the wing.
This could be the match that that changes.
While Rodney Wallace has been gamely fighting to hold onto his spot out on the Timbers' left flank despite suffering through his worst statistical performance since Caleb Porter took over the team, Melano has been accumulating several significant performances in his time spent on the left. The Argentine attacker's defensive credentials are still somewhat suspect at this point -- his hustle is evident but his positioning, tackling, and all that other good stuff we know less about -- but the ability that he has to quickly get down the field and work off of Adi, either running off him or combining with him, could be pivotal to the Timbers' ability to break out after drawing the Sounders forward.
Playing Wallace would certainly be the conservative approach here and would fit with the grind it out ethos of the Timbers, but bringing in Melano could prove to be the game changer that either brings the Timbers' attack to life or leaves them open on the left.
When the Timbers last faced off against the Sounders, Seattle was still battling for the top spot in the Western Conference and was within striking distance of the top of the ladder for all of MLS. Now the Sounders sit just below the red line, holding the 7th place spot in the Western Conference.
With injuries and call ups meaning that the Sounders lost the services of players like Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and Osvaldo Alonso, as well as role players like Chad Barrett, Marco Pappa, and Leo Gonzalez, the Sounders were destined to struggle. And struggle they did, losing nine of their last eleven games.
Now, however, the injured and missing players are starting to return to the pitch for the Sounders and, with the help of some key additions, the Sounders are starting to look like their old, dangerous selves. That quality showed in the Sounders' 4-0 demolition of Orlando City SC two weeks ago, but was again absent in last week's 2-0 loss to Real Salt Lake. Which Sounders side will show up tomorrow remains to be seen, but with so much on the line in a key derby match you have to imagine that the more dangerous version of the team in rave green will make an appearance.
When the Sounders are at their best the team flows through Martins and that will certainly be the case tomorrow. At this point everyone in MLS knows what Martins is capable of; what is still an unknown with the Sounders is how well their new additions -- Nelson Valdez and Roman Torres -- will influence the game. Torres is a strong defender who many rate as potentially one of the best in MLS once he has had a chance to gel with his teammates. Valdez, however, is a potential game changer for the Sounders: a Paraguayan national team striker with European pedigree, Valdez is a clinical finisher both on the ground and in the air.
If Valdez can get on the same page as Martins and the Seattle midfield, he will be a scary player for teams facing the Sounders. To that end, keeping Martins and Valdez on their own separate islands, isolated from each other and from the rest of the Sounders will be key. Jewsbury and Fochive will need to be proactive in looking for interceptions and shutting down passing lanes in the defensive third as the Sounders certainly have the individual and collective ability to break defenses down.
Watch it on: ESPN
Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. PT at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, WA
Portland Timbers: 11-8-7, 4th place in the Western Conference
Seattle Sounders: 11-13-2, 7th place in the Western Conference