Thoughts from Sounderland — Portland away preview

There exists an alternate reality in which Sigi Schmid is no longer the Sounders manager — with his final act being the 5-3 aggregate loss in the MLS Cup Playoffs to Portland last November.  Sigi’s last-ditch effort to save a once-promising 2013 season with a panic stricken 11th-hour switch to a new tactical formation failed to put out the glowing embers in the dumpster that was the Sounders final few weeks of the season.  It exploded into a full-fledged conflagration when the Sounders fell down 5-1 on aggregate with the two-legged tie just more than 3/4 of the way through.  It’s fair to say, it was the lowest moment in the still short history of Sounderland.

I am not here to brief y’all on what happened at the end of last season.  This isn’t something I want to write, and it isn’t something you want to read.  But I also think it’s pretty hard to frame this Saturday’s Cascadia Cup opener in a context which doesn’t somehow relate to the humiliating capitulation of last fall.

If there is any consolation for Sounderland this week it is that despite our team’s somewhat uneven start, we can still look down on Portland in the standings.  Yeah, the 2014 season is still in it’s infancy — but after spending much of last season look up at the Timbers, we’ll take what we can get.

Their troubled start — only two points in as many home tilts and nothing to show for their road trips — has put them out of contention for exactly none of the trophies they are playing for this season.  In fact, the turn of the calendar page and a chance to host their previously vanquished rivals from up I-5 provides the perfect opportunity to begin their 2014 push for silverware in earnest.  At least that’s the narrative I would be subscribing to if I were a Timber — which I am not.

To me, this Saturday represents the opportunity to go at the Timbers in a heads-up, almost mano-a-mano duel that we didn’t get to see last year due to the Sigi-induced clusterfuck of the diamond. As always, it all starts in the midfield.

The Timbers are built around their midfield triangle of Diego Valeri as a CAM and Will Johnson and Diego Chara as holders.  Chara was the League’s second best CDM last season behind our Osvaldo Alonso, and Will Johnson was named to the MLS best XI in his role as what I have taken to calling the “second holding midfielder” position. This is the spot that is often refereed to as the classic “box to box” central midfielder — the player who helps fill the gaps and establish possession. Valeri, of course, was also named to the MLS best XI team, and presents the Sounders with a simmer challenge to what we saw from fellow Argentinian Frederico Higuain last week in the loss to Columbus.

The Sounders have their own “second holding mid” in the form of Brad Evans, who in many ways is the ultimate MLS utility player — so much so that Jurgen Klinsmann has found use for him as a fullback on the US Mens National Team.

Last season’s matchup saw Dempsey as the CAM to counter Valeri, but this season things already look to be different.  If we have learned anything from the last three games, it is that Gonzolo Pineda has played his way onto the Sounders nascent “Best XI”.  Pineda may not be the CAM we’ve always wanted, but he may be the CAM we need — particularly against Portland, where high defensive pressure will be a key.  We saw it last Saturday when the Sounders were even strength, forcing turnovers that directly created scoring chances.

The Sounders back four matched up head to head pretty well with Portland’s last season, and this year is no different.  Chad Marshall is off to a fine start and is looking for all the world like the MLS Best XI caliber CB that he is.  With Traore out, the spot should fall to Jalil Anibaba, whose experience as a right back last year with Chicago will do him well in shifting right to cover for Deandre Yedlin.  Hopefully Leo Gonzalez is fit to return to his spot at left back, as his more defensive style at fullback will help Seattle form a de-facto back three and facilitate Yedlin bombing forward.  Portland has added Norberto Papparatto at CB to improve on last year’s back line, which frankly wasn’t all that great on paper.  At any rate, the Timbers’ back four isn’t superior to the Sounders’ in any significant way.

It was up top where things got squirrely last season for Sigi and the Sounders in the playoffs.  Without a healthy Obafemi Martins in the playoffs, Sigi was forced to make some questionable decisions such as the tragicomic attempt at Shalrie Joseph at forward.  In fact, in a like-for-like matchup against Portland, Sigi had no real option at the left wing.  Eddie Johnson provided a superior option to anything they had at striker, and despite all narratives to the contrary, Mauro Rosales was still pretty effective as a right-sided playmaker last season.

This also leads to the question of where to place a returning Clint Dempsey, but that choice seems apparent to me — replacing Lamar Neagle at left wing.

The primary objection to playing Dempsey on the wing was best expressed in a sarcastic manner by my drunk friend Tyler at the bar after the Sounders’ loss last Saturday night.

“Because this is MLS people just assume a player like Dempsey needs to be in the middle” is the paraphrased gist of what he said, and it hits the nail on the head.

But think of the way Lamar Neagle has played the last two matches, tell me you wouldn’t like to see someone with Dempsey’s skill set inserted into that spot.  Beyond that, Demspey has played some of his best soccer — including his prodigious season at Fulham in 2011-2012 where he scored 23 goals in 46 appearances across all competitions — as a left attacking mid playing “inverted” (aka cutting in toward the goal).  It’s not a dissimilar role he would be in as a left winging a 4-3-3.

The rest of the Sounder forward line certainly compares favorably to Portland, with Oba and Cooper having established a pretty good working relationship so far this season.  It may not be entirely fair to drop Neagle to the bench, but this isn’t about being fair — its about beating the ‘scum in their house.  I personally think this lineup offers the best chance to do it — go right at Portland with a similar formation and challenge them with the belief that our XI is better than theirs.  Hindsight may be 20/20, but I’ve spent about four months wondering why Sigi didn’t do that last year when he had the chance.

Winning in Portland will be a tough task — I don’t care how underwhelming the Timbers start to the season has been.  There is every possibility that Sigi and the boys can make the right decision and still lose to a good team.  There is also a very real possibility that the Sounders can field a diamond and win an ugly slop fest.  Any decisive result will be blown entirely out of proportion because that’s what happens in rivalry games of this magnitude.  Unfortunately, one thing the Sounders can’t do is avenge last season’s embarrassment, as any true retribution will have to wait until November.  But what Sigi and the Sounders can do is demonstrate that they are on the path to making things right.  Let’s hope that his is what happens.