It is rivalry week for the Portland Timbers as they head north to take on the Seattle Sounders in this weekend’s Cascadia clash. The Sounders might be mired in a post-cup malaise, but they are still a difficult side to beat at CenturyLink Field, particularly as they look to scrap their way up above the red line.
To get the latest on the Sounders, we turn to Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart. A long-time Sounders blogger and fan, Dave answered our questions as we prepare for Saturday.
The Sounders have been forced to mix it up this year as they deal with injuries, salary cap issues, and a sophomore slump from 2016's Newcomer of the Year, Nicolas Lodeiro. Now, a third of the way into the season, how are the Sounders coping and who should Timbers fans be looking out for this Saturday?
You'll get a respite in the backup attack. Will Bruin is out with a dislocated elbow. Henry Wingo, the HGP, is out with an ankle injury. That leaves the depth in the attack to Alvaro Fernandez, Aaron Kovar and Seyi Adekoya. Harry Shipp is starting again. Shipp's reputation as a slow, no-defense player should be ignored. He is suitable helping Alonso-Roldan, has good vision and is trying to find ways to contribute to an attack when he doesn't have the ball.
But injuries and a midweek game coming up may force those depth players to get time. Fernandez is not the attacking talent that Timbers fans remember from 2011. He is more like a defensive midfielder with a decent dribble. His passing is now conventional and he rarely threatens goal. Kovar has yet to make the 18 due to injury. He offers a bit of speed and a great long ball, but isn't a threat on goal. Seyi Adeokoya is a rookie HGP with good to great speed who was a strong finisher at UCLA two years ago, but has not finished well in many months.
If I was the Timbers I might try to absorb the attack for the first 60 and force Brian Schmetzer to use his attacking depth as Shipp-Morris-Dempsey wear down (Lodeiro will not wear down). That would be the way to steal a win against a Sounders team that is closer to healthy than its been since Dempsey's heart forced him to sit last August.
Ok, so Lodeiro might not be setting MLS on fire like he did after arriving last year, but with three goals and four assists through twelve games he is clearly still central to the Sounders attack. What are the expectations for Lodeiro this year among Sounders fans and what factors might have slowed him down this year?
The primary concern among fans is whether Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro can work together. Their first four games, way back in August 2016, were extraordinary. A few things happened since then - Dempsey's heart condition, a miracle run into the the Playoffs, an MLS Cup win, Dempsey's return. Some of that concern makes sense. They are the two best attacking players on a team that expects to compete for trophies every year. They combine for only eight goals and five assists.
Both are capable of more. Dempsey's last two healthy years were back-to-back double-doubles. Nico's partial season and playoffs made him look like a clear 2017 MLS MVP candidate who could put up 15 goals and 20 assists.
They aren't pacing for anything like that. Part of that is luck/fortune/whatever. American Soccer Analysis thinks they should combine for two more goals and two more primary assists. Part of that is that Jordan Morris isn't performing at quite the level he was in his rookie season. Morris played through both a hamstring injury early and an ankle injury late. His burst, his only world class tool, was gone until the KC game. If Morris is back the Seattle attack should be good, and that means that Lodeiro will put up those counting stats that draw East Coast eyeballs come voting time.
Other than Lodeiro, it was the Sounders' lock down defense that carried them into and through the playoffs last year. Now the Sounders have struggled on the back line almost as much as the Timbers. Is that all on the injuries that have kept guys like Roman Torres and Brad Evans off the pitch, or are there other issues that the Timbers should be looking to exploit?
The primary failure of the defense is due to injuries. Depth is great and everything, but playing a fourth-string right back (Jordy Delem) five times, and used five different RBs so far, is bad. Tony Alfaro started the season as the fifth-string centerback. He has five starts. Gustav Svensson started the season as the third or fourth defensive midfielder. He has seven starts at centerback and two each at right back and defensive midfield.
Again, it's great to have depth. Getting players that much experience should help the organization long term. In the short term there were positive signs early, but eventually the mental fatigue seems to have broken down Delem's ability to adapt to his new role. It should be noted that Delem played as a CB and DM with S2 last year, and this is likely his first ever experience out wide. Other teams targeted him. The cover wasn't last year's strong defenders of Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, or Brad Evans, but Alfaro and Svensson.
The defense did not bend. It broke. The second halves against both Chicago and KC were as bad as the Sounders defense has ever been.
If they are only starting one of their backups rather than only one starter, the defense should be more similar to the '16 version. It will allow long-range shots under pressure from Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso while counting on the reactions of Stefan Frei. In this match specifically there should be opportunity to exploit Evans' inability to recover at the speed that Joevin Jones does. That will pull Gustav or Cristian into the wide space, or require one of Shipp or Lodeiro to work defensively. That's the weakest space, but it isn't as weak as it was.
Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Gustav Svensson, Brad Evans; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Jordan Morris