New-look Seattle Sounders eye postseason push, but Portland Timbers stand in the way

The offshoot of being in ninth place in the Western Conference at the start of August is that every game suddenly becomes a must-win. The time for half measures was already over.

Even then, though, the Seattle Sounders could not have harbored much hope that they’d be fighting to claw within a single result of crossing the sixth-place red line Rubicon into postseason eligibility this soon. After all, the Sounders were nine points out of the playoffs with just 14 games left to go and a stacked conference looking down at them.

It Seattle did get back into the playoff discussion, logic dictated, it would probably not materialize until October.

MLS has a funny way of turning something that looks like wisdom into folly. And so, suddenly and seemingly without warning, Seattle have a monumentally important match on their plate three weeks after it looked like the playoffs might be a bridge too far.

And it’s against Portland. Because of course it is.

The history of the Portland-Seattle rivalry is the richest living grudge match in American soccer, and the MLS version is always meaningful. The nature of the two clubs - the resources, the quality decision-makers, the loaded lineups - means these games are almost always contested between two teams comfortably in playoff positioning. In the last two years alone there are three major trophies split between these two clubs – the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup to the Sounders in 2014, and the MLS Cup last year to the Timbers.

That’s why it’s so novel to see Seattle sitting - still - in ninth in the West while Portland frantically tries to hold onto the last playoff spot at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. And their proximity to one another in the standings is why this is one of the most significant Cascadia Cup matches for the Sounders in some time.

Over the last three games, Seattle can lay claim to being among the most cohesive units in MLS. The Sounders are 2-0-1 and, thanks to the clinical stylings of Nicolas Lodeiro, have scored six goals in those three games. That’s 30 percent of the total Seattle had racked up in the previous 20 games. Lodeiro has been involved in some way in all six goals.

As if the pressure of a typical Portland-Seattle rivalry weren’t enough, the stakes are astronomical for the Sounders, who desperately need more wins. A victory over Portland and Seattle can conceivably draw within two points of the Timbers’ coveted sixth-place spot. That would put the Sounders just a single win out of the playoffs with 10 games remaining. At that point, with MLS’s unpredictability looming, anything’s possible. The odds might as well be even.

First, though, the Sounders need to get through Portland on Sunday. And at this point even a draw does them no favors.

The good news for Seattle is that this is a vastly different team than the one that was shellacked by the Timbers 3-1 on July 17 in Portland. The Timbers are a devastating counter-attacking team, relying in many instances on possessions of just 10-15 touches to traverse the entire length of the field for goals. That happened twice against the swamped Sounders last month, as their doughy central midfield in the 4-3-3 was ill-prepared to counter the threat.

A lot’s changed in the last month.

For one, the 4-2-3-1 interim coach Brian Schmetzer’s introduced dropped two dedicated holding midfielders into the system in Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso. That will be critical in shielding the defense against Portland’s quick-strike attacks, which come without warning behind the lightning blasts of Diego Valeri and Lucas Melano and Fanendo Adi. The Sounders are more prepared to deal with direct attacks like Portland’s than ever.

Portland’s real struggle, meanwhile, will be containing Lodeiro, a player they’ve never seen in person before. That task will be made significantly more difficult by the recent loss of center back pillar Nat Borchers to a season-ending injury. His partnership with Liam Ridgewell might’ve been the league’s best, and now it’s hobbling along on one leg for the remainder of the season. Expect Seattle’s suddenly resurgent attack to take advantage.

The biggest challenge in rivalry games is simply tuning out the noise and staying with the game plan. Games of this magnitude tend to reset the results queue and take place inside their own bubble. When Seattle dropped Portland 2-1 at the end of last August, they had just struggled through the worst summer run of form in franchise history while Portland was beginning to put together the form that would take them to an MLS Cup title.

And yet the Sounders duly bossed the game at CenturyLink Field, taking a deserved 2-1 win that erased the summer and jump-started a stretch of 10 weeks without a loss. So it goes in rivalry games. Take what you know and bury it in the ground.

That’s where we are as the Timbers make the short trek north this weekend. The Timbers are not in particularly good form and haven’t won a road game all year. The only other teams in that category are Columbus Crew SC, the Houston Dynamo and the Chicago Fire, easily the three worst teams in MLS this season.

So yes, there’s plenty of reason for optimism from Seattle’s side as the Sounders dive into the second of three regular season matches against Portland this year. Seattle are objectively playing better soccer right now, and Lodeiro might be in even hotter form than Valeri. But as it always seems to be in this match, throw out what you think you know before it starts.

Anything can happen in one of the fiercest rivalries on the planet.



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