The Portland Timbers host their arch-rivals, the Seattle Sounders, tomorrow evening in a match that could prove to be a turning point for the season of either side. The Timbers will be looking to take advantage of some home cooking as they return to Providence Park, but they will face a stiff challenge from a Sounders side looking to claw their way up above the red line in the Western Conference.
To get the low down on the visitors, we turned to Dave Clark of our sister site Sounder at Heart and answered some questions of his in return.
The Sounders can't quite match the Timbers in terms of their current lack of form on the road, but four games without a point is still nothing to scoff at. What have the Sounders struggled with outside the confines of the CLink and is there any reason to believe that they will move past those issues on Sunday?
It is completely about a defense. Let's throw the puddle game out the window for any sort of analysis. There are still three straight horror shows on the road. During that time the Seattle Sounders were shown to be unable to defend counters, especially those going through the right channel and right wing.
Much of that was the fault of the defensive player rotation. We'll get into that heavily later, but much of the weakness lies on Jordy Delem. The thing is the team knew he was weak in that role and he kept starting. They didn't adjust on the field and lately Brian Schmetzer has taken to starting Cristian Roldan out at right back. That's a bit better.
It could also be addressed by more significant pressure from the attacking players. That leads an opposing team to make the necessary pass rather than the ideal one. It could also be addressed by better support from the right centerback and one of the defensive mids. Seattle is smart enough to know that, but still were taken apart.
To win at Portland they need higher quality players (which should happen), but they also need the attacking band to understand that they are the first line of defense when a team plays as high in possession as the Sounders do.
Like the Timbers, the Sounders are at the halfway point in their season. What has been the side's biggest shortfall so far in 2017 and how can that improve going forward? What has been a strength of the side this year?
It's hard to find a strength in a team that hasn't scored more than a single goal in a game since the impressive come-from-behind 3-3 draw against New England. That game showed a strength and resilience that has since disappeared. Returning from a three goal deficit to nab points is awesome. It was April 29.
The past two months have shown an ineffective offense and the previously mentioned defensive disasters.
Preseason pundits loved the idea of adding a healthy Clint Dempsey to an attack that did quite well with Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris in 2016. Top that off with Will Bruin whip cream and Harry Shipp sprinkles should be terrific. Instead the attack is melting. The huge names are all failing.
Clint Dempsey lacks even his normal speed. This is typical of an aging player, but harmful in that he can no longer run onto throughballs. He needs to adapt as CautCuauhtémoc Blanco did and be an incredible passer who doesn't move much or he holds little value to the Sounders. Nicolas Lodeiro needs to resume his role carrying the team. Last season he willingly accepted the burden of expectation. This year he sometimes defers to Clint or fades into background. He's not aging. This will be his team for a couple more years. He needs to be the commander, not a support officer.
Lastly, Jordan Morris started the season broken. A player defined by his speed was just an average MLS forward in that aspect, and most other forward talents he is around average or slightly better. That lasted until just a couple weeks ago. While he is coming back into his own with better, longer runs he must be aggressive. He needs to take be aggressive both in his runs and his shooting. There are also significant questions as to whether he can be a Dom Dwyer type lone forward or must make a switch to a Zakuani-style winger. That confusion as to role must be defined. The transfer window rapidly approaches and the next DP will indicate the future of one of America's best forward talents.
Like the Timbers, the Sounders have been hit hard by injuries and absences this season, particularly along the back line. Who is in, who is out, and who would be the Sounders' first choice back line?
It will be close to a first choice backline, except we don't really know what a first choice backline is. So many injuries have forced so many changes that Brian Schmetzer has started ten different players in twelve different roles. Only three of those started more than half of the games this season and none have more than Joevin Jones' 14 starts.
Right back is probably the most extreme example of how bad the defensive rotation is so far in 2017. Delem started the season as something like the 5th defensive mid and 6th centerback. He had never played right back at the professional level. Jordy Delem leads the team in right back starts with six. Four other players have two or more starts there. Not many teams play five different right backs in a season, let alone have their fourth choice lead the squad in starts.
The main benefit from the rotation is that Gustav Svensson looks like a starting caliber centerback. He is more the possession-style CB, kind of like Brad Evans back when Evans was a good CB for that stretch from 2014 to early 2016. His passing is not just safe, but effective. He may have inserted himself into a role as a regular starter. It's just that we have no idea what his best role is. Svensson is also quite effective as a defensive midfielder. He may become a 12th starter.
Now, supposedly Brad Evans is healthy, and supposedly he's the first choice right back. The discussion regarding the backline against Portland, and possibly the Ideal XI, is "Do they start Svensson or MLS Cup hero Roman Torres?" I expect it to be Torres.
Projected lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Brad Evans; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin