Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers set for titanic Cascadia clash

Through its station is the loudest and most bitterly fought of MLS’s rivalries, every game Portland and Seattle play takes on a postseason atmosphere. There is not much conviviality here.

And yet there’s an argument to be made - a pretty ironclad one, in fact - that the two have never played a more mutually important regular season match than their final scheduled meeting in 2016. This one may not be for all the marbles, but it’ll certainly determine who has more.

Like two storm clouds colliding, Portland and Seattle face off Sunday in Portland for, essentially, the inside track on a playoff spot (2 p.m. PT; ESPN/KIRO 97.3 FM/El Rey 1360 AM). A draw, of course, could prolong the importance, but three points for either side on Sunday could tip the balance and send one team soaring for the postseason and the other reeling back toward the inky depths.

At least on recent form, the Sounders are good value to at least bus out of Portland with a point. The Sounders are unbeaten in their last five, and they were able to rest a couple key starters in a midweek 1-1 draw at Houston. The Timbers didn’t have that midweek match burden, and it looks as though Fanendo Adi is back as well after serving an in-house punishment last weekend against the Sounders that left him out of the starting lineup. That will undoubtedly play its part.

But look into the last four weeks of each respective side and one stands in sun while the other wallows in shadow. Under interim coach Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders are 3-0-2 in their last five, a stretch in which they’ve gathered 11 points. That’s more than half the total they had over their first 20 games.

Portland coach Caleb Porter, meanwhile, is trying to fix his team’s wobbly wheels while traveling at full speed. The Timbers are 1-4-0 in their last five, turning a once comfortable playoff position injected by a nine-match unbeaten run into a suddenly untenable rock in the middle of a roiling ocean. The Timbers didn’t lose once from May 22-July 17. They’ve done it four times in the five games since.

As far as the Timbers are concerned, the crux of the issue has been on the attacking end. Portland’s blunt style requires ample quick-break opportunities, and it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the back line to hold while under duress. The Timbers don’t care so much about possession metrics when a great number of their goals come on 15-touch build-ups or less. But that requires the defense to hold, and it hasn’t done that enough since late July.

The crux of that problem revolves around Nat Borchers, the full-throated center back who went down with a season-ending injury on July 23. It’s probably not a coincidence the Timbers’ slide - and spate of uncharacteristic defensive miscues - has directly coincided with Borchers’ injury.

The Timbers are still devastatingly effective when they can pull all the individual pieces of the Megazord together, which is ever a possibility with this many key players still healthy. Porter will still marshal the likes of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe and Adi and Lucas Melano and hope the thing clicks. You would not bet against it happening eventually. Just maybe not this weekend.

There were two primary reasons the Sounders were so defensively effective against the Timbers’ break last weekend. The first involved sheer luck. In place of Adi, striker Jack McInerney had once of the worst afternoons of his career, killing multiple dangerous breaks by sitting on the ball and flubbing a golden breakaway he snubbed into Stefan Frei’s legs. Had he converted any of those chances, the game would’ve had a different tenor.

But it didn’t. And the Sounders’ formation switch has a tremendous amount to do with that.

The 4-2-3-1 proliferated on the international stage following its success at the 2010 World Cup - notably with the Dutch - because it is the ultimate specialization formation for a specialized era. Where other formations ask for fluidity from its deployments - the 4-3-3 is maybe most famous for this - the 4-2-3-1 has decisive and limited instruction for each player. Here are your areas, here’s your assignment. Now go do it.

There is wiggle room, of course, but the Sounders needed that specialization in the defensive third. There was too much confusion in front of the back four, and by pulling Cristian Roldan back and giving Osvaldo Alonso the partner he had in Gonzalo Pineda last year, the entire formation tilted. Suddenly the Sounders could blunt attacks while launching those of its own.

The catalyst for the formation shift was undoubtedly Nicolas Lodeiro. But the quietest (and arguably biggest) beneficiaries were probably the two guys sitting in the hole behind him.

Roldan and Alonso were the unsung heroes of the 3-1 win over Portland last weekend. Portland got its chances, as it probably always will. But as compared to the 3-1 Portland win in the first match of this season’s series, the Timbers’ chances had a limited edge to them. The reinforcements were never far off when they got in behind.

That’s an important point of improvement as Seattle travels south this weekend. Teams are inevitably more closed on the road, and the re-addition of Adi into the starting XI will throw a suddenly desperate Portland team onto the offensive from the jump. Combined with Clint Dempsey’s unexpected absence due to an irregular heartbeat, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Timbers command the ultimate shot battle.

But the only thing that matters is the ones that go in. And as the Sounders proved over the last five games, there’s perhaps no team in the league doing that better right now.



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