There’s a begrudging respect that tends to connect bitter rivals willing to acknowledge the talent on the other side of the divide. When Sounders FC wades into its second 2015 Cascadia Cup match this weekend, this time against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, fans and players alike will undoubtedly see the entertaining ties that bind these two rivals together.
This weekend’s matchup could be a lot of things. Bitterly contested, chippy, fierce. But it will almost certainly be the height of MLS entertainment.
So far this season, MLS teams are averaging just north of 11 goals in an average of 9.5 games played, which measures out to about 1.1 goals per match. That’s low, historically, but the season is also young. Still, pull out the Western Conference and the numbers are considerably kinder to attacking teams, which are in a more robust supply the further west you travel. Western Conference teams have scored 19 more goals than their Eastern Conference counterparts as a collective, and no team in the West has scored fewer than nine goals this season. Four teams in the East are under that benchmark.
Focus the microscope even further - through the conference and into the Cascadia Cup match in Vancouver this weekend - and the picture becomes even less pixelated. The Whitecaps and Sounders have both run exceedingly entertaining attacks at opponents this year, as evidenced by the fact that when combined the two teams are averaging nearly half a goal per game above the league average. Only FC Dallas has scored more goals in MLS this season than Vancouver and Seattle, who rank second and third, respectively.
Look at it this way. Sounders FC leads MLS with 14 goals from open play, 93-percent of the team’s total. Whitecaps FC has scored 10 in the run of play, meaning both teams are in the top five in MLS in that category. Neither are particularly reliant on counters, crosses or long balls, which makes the aesthetics offered in this match of particular note. In other words, the match should have little trouble capturing your attention.
For Vancouver, the locus of the excitement has largely been Pedro Morales. The cheeky Chilean ranks second in MLS in both key passes per game (three) and assists (four). Morales has been the central creator in coach Carl Robinson’s 4-2-3-1, with electrifying winger Kekuta Manneh on his left, former Sounders FC dead-ball specialist Mauro Rosales to his right and Octavio Rivero up top. Morales’ 52 passes per game is in the league’s top 20.
The numbers are nice, but the sheer watchability Morales brings to the table is undoubtedly his biggest draw. In Vancouver’s 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, he scored a goal on a clever one-timer and then set up another with the most perfectly weighted pass of any player in the league over the course of the weekend. His seeking 30-yard ball curled around the defense and found Rivero in stride for the simple put-away.
If the Whitecaps are to be stopped, curtailing the unpredictable exploits of Pedro Morales is task No. 1.
Of course, the buck doesn’t stop with the Whitecaps’ entertainment appeal. Behind the twin engines of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, Seattle has the best - and most delightfully experimental - one-two attacking punch in the league. So while the Sounders are bounding off a 3-2 loss at Columbus Crew SC, they can take solace in the similarities between the two matchups. Columbus and Vancouver have scored precisely the same amount of goals, are similarly prolific at home and play an attractive style heavily reliant on producing flowery passages in open play. Even the creators are similar, as Federico Higuain and Morales aren’t that far off in terms of playing styles.
From that aspect, Sounders FC knows what to expect this weekend. The key is finding a way to shore up at the back after giving up three goals, while simultaneously keeping the attack ticking over at its same high rate. No easy task, especially in a third consecutive road match.
Each of Columbus’ three goals on Saturday came off the right flank, which will probably be an area of defensive focus this week. The first goal came via a crosser who wasn’t closed down, the second off a mazy run from Higuain that sliced across the back line’s belly from right to left and the third was born from a Justin Meram run that began when he coaxed Brad Evans off his line before turning past him down that flank.
At times, Sounders FC drew a high line it was incapable of holding in the sludgy humidity of a foreign stadium. And some moments of let-down were sheer anomaly. Chad Marshall being beat in the air, as he was for Kei Kamara’s opening goal, doesn’t happen often.
Either way, this weekend’s Cascadia Cup match should be the height of entertainment as both adjust from opposite sides of three point results. Two of the league’s most swashbuckling teams will almost certainly put on an attacking show worth remembering.