The Story So Far
34 regular season matches and one knockout round win: Welcome to the Western Conference semifinals.
After getting the win in Dallas, the Timbers had to wait a day to find out who they would be facing, and — as luck, or fate, would have it — the Seattle Sounders are coming to town for the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals. Being second in the West, the Sounders got the coveted first-round bye, so they should be well rested and ready to go: The last time they played was Decision Day, where they finished with a 2-1 win over San Jose at home.
Once again, we’re sitting at the end of the season, and Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle Sounders are in the playoffs with a first-round bye. Wasn’t it just a while ago that people had all but written them off ... again? Personally, I never count the team to the north out of anything. I may not like them, but I’ve got a healthy respect for them.
Things started turning around for the Sounders around the time they brought in 28-year-old Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz. He provided a much needed spark and, after that, things seemed to fall into place. They went 5-0-1 in their last six in their run up to snatch the second seed in the West.
What to Watch for
Seattle Sounders (18-11-5, 59 pts)
The Seattle Sounders are riding into town in a great run of form — 8-0-2 in their last ten — and don’t look to be stopping. Ruidiaz has put on a show since coming to MLS, scoring 10 goals and assists in just 13 appearances with the Sounders. He definitely was the catalyst to the Sounders resurgence in the second half of the season. When Ruidiaz has featured for the Sounders, they’ve won 85.7 percent of games and averaged 2.1 goals per 90. Not too shabby.
They’ll likely come out in a 4-2-3-1 with Ruidiaz at the top, Lodeiro tucked just underneath as the playmaker, and Roldan and Rodriguez out on the wings. This is a formidable front four that will keep the Timbers defense busy. It’s a must to keep your eye on Lodeiro, who averages almost four key passes a match.
And, of course, you’ve got Alonso patrolling the defensive midfield along with Gustav Svensson. These two really like to clog up the midfield and get things out to the wings, mostly attacking up the left. Seattle’s fullback situation has been a bit of a sore spot with Sounders fans, as they have two capable players — Brad Smith and the 21-year-old Cameroonian, Nouhou Tolo — but just one spot available. The last injury report noted Brad Smith out with a hamstring injury, but he could be available on the bench in the first leg. This would point to Nouhou getting the starting spot in the first leg. That means they could play a bit more defensive on the road, saving Smith for a possible start in the return leg in Seattle.
In the heart of the Seattle defense is former Defender of the Year, Chad Marshall, and his center back partner Kim Kee-Hee. This two have been rock solid and are some of the hardest-to-dribble-by center backs in the league.
Portland Timbers (15-10-9, 54 pts)
I think that the Timbers got away with one in Dallas. A win is a win, but it sure was an ugly one. I don’t think that’s going to fly against the Sounders: The starting eleven is going to have to be dialed in and ready.
The last time these two teams faced, back in August, it was a 1-0 win for the Sounders. (To wit, the Sounders didn’t actually score that goal; it came on a Julio Cascante own goal.)
Of course the Timbers will be without the services of Larrys Mabiala, who picked up a red card with about 30 minutes left in the match against Dallas. While it looked to me like he’d got tripped up in the turf, DOGSO is DOGSO, and that means Gio will have a choice when it comes to his center back pairing. [Oh, and the Timbers are winless (3) with Mabiala out of the line up.]
It looks like Bill Tuiloma is most likely to get the start alongside Liam Ridgewell. It seems that Tuiloma has jumped ahead of Julio Cascante on the depth chart for Gio.
Other than the one change, I don’t see the rest of the lineup changing. Andy Polo is coming into his own and patrolling the right wing. With the Sounders penchant for going down the wings, both Jorge Villafana and Zarek Valentin are going to have their hands full with Rodriguez and Roldan.
I’m pretty sure that Savarese will continue using the 4-2-3-1 because it seems to be the one that gives them the best winning chance over the last several matches. It’ll be crowded in that midfield with Seattle trying to push it out to the wings, as I mentioned.
Keep on eye on the Timbers center back pairing as they’ll be put to the test with Ruidiaz, who can be a handful around the box. They really have to be on lock down — the less service Ruidiaz gets, the better. Put him out on an island.
Sunday’s match will mark the 103rd time these two teams have played each other; though this is the first time since 2013 that they have faced off in the MLS Cup Playoffs. It was a Western Conference semifinal, and Portland won that semifinal 5-3 on aggregate. Only four Timbers currently on the roster were on the team that beat the Sounders back in 2013: Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Alvas Powell and Jake Gleeson.
This first leg could be a cagey one: Seattle will not want to be completely open, but will want to give enough to earn that coveted away goal. It’s a derby match, though, and really most everything — even history — is thrown out the door. That’s what makes it a nervous affair for fans of both squads.
Gio, as we’ve surmised, will come out with his first choice XI, excluding Mabiala; he’ll be available on Thursday night for the return leg in Seattle. He was the key to beating Seattle in Seattle this season, so it would be nice to have him in the line up but, like Mabiala, we have to wait.
What do you think the Timbers should do tomorrow? Let us know in the comments!