Timbers versus Sounders. Well, part one, at least.
Although the Cascadia Cup isn’t on the line on Sunday due to the imbalanced Cascadian schedule this season, Sunday’s game comes at an important point for both teams. The Timbers are looking to continue their recent run of strong form, win their fourth straight, and plant their flag firmly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. Seattle, on the other hand, hope to build off their unlikely midweek win in Toronto and pull off a semi-miraculous one-week turnaround after a nightmarish first couple months to the season.
Unlike the Timbers, who enter Sunday’s derby in pretty good health, the Sounders are dealing with a slew of both long-term and short-term injuries. Each of Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, Roman Torres, and Victor Rodriguez will miss Sunday’s fixture at Providence Park. Moreover, likely Sunday starters Chad Marshall, Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan, and Will Bruin each travelled to Toronto and played significant minutes against the Reds midweek.
Simply put: The Timbers really should win this game. Here’s how I expect the Sounders to line up on Sunday:
Although they rolled out a five-man backline in Toronto midweek, expect the Sounders to return to their familiar (albeit relatively ambiguous) 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 on Sunday. The biggest question in Seattle’s lineup will be who occupies the wide midfield position opposite Roldan. If he’s recovered well from his midweek effort, Magnus Wolff Eikrem provides the most playmaking; something the Sounders have sorely lacked at times, especially with Lodeiro out. Brian Schmetzer, however, could go to the fresh legs of Alex Roldan or the youth and pace of Handwalla Bwana, the later of whom could provide an element of pace and penetration that can be lacking in the Sounders setup above.
Assuming Schmetzer goes with Wolff, though, the Sounders will look to sit relatively deep and play on the counter, not unlike how they approached their midweek fixture in Toronto. The reason for that is pretty simple: Everything about the Sounders’ front four screams getting bogged down against organized defensive lines. The elder Roldan — for all his qualities — is really a box-to-box central midfielder biding his time on the wing until he can take up Ozzie Alonso’s position in central midfield. Bruin punches significantly under his weight class as a true target nine, but can be dangerous in the open field as he was on Wednesday’s opener. Meanwhile, Dempsey, who made a career of finding goals from nowhere, has looked like Father Time is catching up to him in his relatively few minutes thus far in 2018.
All of that adds up to a Seattle team that can be pretty well managed when its opponent stays compact, as they were in a deflating 0-0 home draw against the ten-man Columbus Crew a week ago. Despite playing up a man for well over an hour, the Sounders failed to create chances while settling for whipping in 43 crosses. In space, though, this is a team that can be dangerous, as they were midweek.
Even if the Timbers come out looking to dictate the game on Sunday — as I think they will — Gio Savarese’s side needs to be careful not to overcommit. The defensive midfield balance between Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes will be important, as will taking only calculated risks with the fullbacks. For that reason, even if Vytas is healthy and fit, Sunday may not be the day to move on from Zarek Valentin at left back.
This Sounders team is also a team that can tempt its opponents to push too aggressively. For as nightmarish as the Sounders have been in the attack for much of 2018, they’ve been solid defensively, only conceding 10 times in 8 games. Chad Marshall remains among the better centerbacks in MLS, while Kelvin Leerdam is quietly among the top fullbacks in the league. Kim Kee-hee hasn’t seen a ton of action at centerback, but the TAM defender and South Korean international has shown fairly well in his minutes on the field. At left back, the 20-year-old Nouhou Tolo is the Sounders’ answer to Alvas Powell; he can at times be a two-way menace who looks the part of an elite fullback, or, at other times, a liability prone to mental lapses.
Don’t be surprised, though, to see the Timbers test the freshness of Marshall’s legs early. Although Fanendo Adi and Marshall have had some fairly epic battles in the past, the Nigerian striker should like his chances against the 33-year-old centerback coming off a difficult 90-minute outing on Wednesday and some cross-country travel. If the Timbers can grind down the likes of Marshall and the 31-year-old defensive midfielder in Svensson, there should be opportunities for Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Adi to pepper Stefan Frei.
And if they can do that, the Timbers will be in great shape to take the first Cascadian clash of the season.