Obafemi Martins vs POR 150830
Jane Gershovich

Down Goes Portland: Sounders FC ends August with mammoth rivalry win

August was one of the most trying months in Sounders FC franchise history. Seattle trudged into a logjam of a schedule crunch in which the team had eight matches in 30 days and fought with an injury bug that robbed the team of some of its best players. Sounders FC did this all while integrating four new summer transfer signings.

So yes, August was a long month for Seattle. But Sounders FC closed the chapter with an emphatic slam on Sunday against its most heated of rivals.

Down goes Portland. Again.

Sounders FC notched up its second win against the Portland Timbers in as many home games this season with a riotous 2-1 win in front of 64,358, the fourth-largest crowd in franchise history. Earlier in the weekend, Sounders FC dropped below the playoff threshold for the first time all season when the San Jose Earthquakes upset the LA Galaxy. A vital three points against Portland pushed Seattle back up into the postseason’s promised territory with seven games left in the season.

Sounders FC finished its antagonizing August with a 3-4-1 mark across three different countries, which included three Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League matches, one of which was in Honduras at midweek sandwiched between MLS matches. After a tough summer, the win over Portland was just the tonic the team needed headed into the final two months of the season.

And a bit of good news going forward: Sounders FC plays as many games in the next 57 days as it did in the last 30.

“Happy that September’s starting up,” midfielder Brad Evans said, “and hopefully we can get off to a good start. We ended this month well. Two months ago, it was a bad month. We kind of had a couple victories this month and a couple losses, so hopefully that kind of rights the ship as we move in to September.”

Sunday’s meeting with Portland was filled with the kind of steep, on-the-fly learning curve that’s followed this team all summer. Marco Pappa’s return to the midfield marked the first time he’d played next to Erik Friberg, who himself was coping with a relatively new partnership in central midfield with Evans. Meanwhile, strikers Nelson Valdez and Obafemi Martins played just their third MLS game together on Sunday, while centerback Roman Torres and leftback Oniel Fisher are both new additions to the regular backline within the last month.

So the fact that Sunday’s game was perhaps a bit more disjointed than the flowing possession games Sounders FC knitted together earlier this year made a kind of sense. The key was that the points followed. And they certainly did.

“It wasn’t a top game for us in terms of passing,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “But the most important thing was to get the points.”

Sounders FC managed to nudge the Timbers on possession (51.2-47.7) and passes (407-374), but the Timbers stacked up an incredible 20 shots over the course of the match. In terms of an expected goals statistic, Portland’s was considerably higher than the single tally they finished with. Note Portland’s shot chart here. Lots of red (missed shots) in the box. Credit the superhuman recovery ability of centerbacks Chad Marshall and Torres for many of those miscues.

Martins’ game-opening goal in the sixth minute, which popped the top off the tarp-less stadium, resulted from an admixture of the Nigerian’s predatory nose for goal in the box and a notable series of communications errors from Timbers centerbacks Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers. Sounders FC’s second came off a 42nd minute penalty from Evans, who drove it hard and to his left to punish keeper Adam Kwarasey for clattering Martins on a chase in the box.

Sounders FC finished with six shots to the Timbers’ 20. Perhaps the biggest reason for the goals disparity? Stefan Frei, arguably the league’s most in-form keeper right now.

Frei made a handful of highlight reel saves over the course of the match, none bigger than a Spiderman save on Lucas Melano in the first half to preserve the lead. Due to a miscommunication at the back, Melano found himself streaking clear into the box for a one-on-one with Frei, who stepped out to meet the challenge before falling back toward his line when he aptly realized he couldn’t get there in time. Melano opted to go low and to his right, and Frei read his mind.

Even as the ball jumped off Melano’s foot, Frei’s hand stabbed downward with lightning speed to dig the shot out of the turf. The ball died there. Melano missed.

“It’s bouncing weirdly, almost to the right a little bit, and I feel like I’m not going to be able to get there cleanly,” Frei said. “So I just decided to stay back and see how he takes up the angle against me, then just come out, try to stay big and not go down too early. Luckily he hit it at me.”

That wasn’t just a possible (if deserving) MLS Save of the Week candidate. It was a galvanizing moment for a backline that grew in strength as the match wore on. Portland’s only goal came off a marking breakdown on a set piece, meaning that despite its myriad shots, the Timbers never managed to score in the run of play.

After the match, Schmid reflected on the difficulties of the last month by comparing it to a psych test. There was no one difficult thing about its rigors, and if given a multiple choice, he’d pick ‘all of the above.’ Between an intense series of games, Schmid and his staff had to juggle fitness and training challenges jammed into a thickly congested schedule.

As the games spread out in the coming months, Sounders FC looks ahead to seven more league matches: home against Toronto FC, LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake and at Vancouver, Sporting KC and Houston. Imbued with the confidence from a massive win over the Portland Timbers - again - Sounders FC goes boldly marching on.

“Sometimes you’ve got to find your way back into rhythm and confidence through just hard work,” Schmid said. “And today was just hard work.”