174 miles separate success and heartbreak
Two states, two cities, two fan bases and most importantly — two clubs that want nothing more than to not only beat one another, but demolish the opposing side.
It’s the Seattle Sounders FC against the Portland Timbers in their second of three Cascadia Cup matches this season. The goals are simple — the reward for victory, even more so. A win for the Rave Green draws them level atop the standings with two matches left. A win for the Timbers at home gives them the cup.
Seattle minds easily trace back to key moments in this rivalry. The 2-1 loss earlier this campaign at Jeld-Wen Field, where the home side struck twice in the first 25 minutes past a helpless Brian Meredith. There was no Michael Gspurning that day, and no one knows the difference the Austrian would have made. We remember tempers boiling over resulting in a Fredy Montero ejection before the full-time whistle. We remember the heartache that Sounders fans had to suffer that day watching an inferior team look dominant and almost impenetrable.
But alas, there have been good times as well — take last season’s 3-2 away win for example.
The images still cycle through the minds of Sounders fans. Falling behind by an early second half own goal, followed by a magical Montero free kick to level things up. Another silly deflection swifty equalized once again off the foot of Fredy. And finally the Ozzie Alonso penalty kick to seal the win and three points in the Sounders last victory in Portland.
But this story is just starting, and a new chapter has yet to be written. This is a different Sounders team than Portland faced in June. Mentally, physically and emotionally this is a Sounders side that is better than Portland — much better. The Timbers Army will see a new team on Saturday, filled with names like Gspurning, Zakuani, Tiffert and Martinez.
Meanwhile Portland comes into this match seeking what it’s ownership called the second most important trophy behind the MLS Cup. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the fact that Portland could steal our cup come Saturday with three points.
Why not them? They have nothing to play for besides the cup, they’re desperate — a dangerous situation for the Sounders.
Portland’s recent form leads to questions of consistency. In their seven matches since the All-Star break, the Timbers are 2-3-2 and are now under the leadership of former US U-23 manager Caleb Porter, who also coached Sounders winger Steve Zakuani in his time at Akron.
Seattle on the other hand are on a tear coming into this match. Near impeccable form has lead to only one MLS loss since they last played Portland, a 2-1 defeat at the hands of San Jose in the form of a stoppage-time winner. Seattle boasts a 5-1-1 record since the break.
With four or more goals being scored in two of those wins, and Gspurning and the Sounders backline collecting two clean sheets in that time, it appears on paper that this should be a drubbing for the visitors — but that’s hardly how rivalry matches tend to work.
Keys to victory — For the Sounders to walk out of Portland victorious Saturday, three things need to happen, starting with which players coach Sigi Schmid puts out on the pitch.
The biggest question marks come at the right back and left midfield positions. Sounders veteran Zach Scott and Sweden-International Adam Johansson have both spent time there this season due to a lingering hamstring injury for Johansson, but I would expect Scott to get the start Saturday due to Johansson recently returning from international duty.
Now onto the left midfield, a position that will be determined by how Schmid lines the team up. Sigi has experimented this season already with a 4-1-3-2 which I believe is the most effective formation. But there is also the chance of seeing a 4-4-2 diamond. Mario Martinez, like Johansson, is recently back from FIFA duty, so don’t expect a start from him. That leaves Zakuani and Brad Evans for the spot. I think we see Evans if Sigi plays a 4-4-2 and we see Zakuani if it’s a 4-1-3-2 (or 4-3-3).
Another key to the match will be the effectiveness of Mauro Rosales’s wide play on such a narrow pitch. Jeld-Wen Field, a former baseball park, is one of the narrowest pitches in the MLS. That could affect how we see Rosales play and feed the ball into Montero and Eddie Johnson from the wing. If that wide ball isn’t there, expect to see Rosales pinch inside alongside Christian Tiffert.
Finally, how will the crowd swing the match in one team’s favor? By now, every Cascadia Cup match has been played on the three pitches and in front of the three crowds. Seattle should not have any fears or concerns about playing in front of the TA, but with the cup on the line, this may be the most fierce environment yet.
Projected Starting IX — I see Seattle coming out in a 4-4-2 here and switching to a more attacking formation around the 60th minute. With that said I also expect to see a few subs made in this one.
GK, Michael Gspurning
CB, Jeff Parke CB, Patrick Ianni
RB, Zach Scott LB, Marc Burch
CDM, Osvaldo Alonso
RM, Mauro Rosales (Martinez) LM, Brad Evans (Zakuani)
CAM, Christian Tiffert
FW, Fredy Montero FW, Eddie Johnson
Projections — I have to think pessimistic on this one, but even them my negative thoughts are still a one goal Sounders victory. I know rivalry matches are usually tight and filled with drama, fouls and cards, but I actually expect a different result in this one. Sounders win 3-0. It’s too hard to ignore form, and the Sounders are hot as an open flame right now. Brace for Montero and Martinez hits a bullet from distance around the 80th minute.
Where to watch/follow — For the first time since 2008, an MLS regular season match will be shown on national cable TV. The kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. broadcast on NBC. Also be sure to follow @CaseyMcLain34, @madison_mccord and @kramdawgsean for updates and thoughts during the match.