There are certain rivalries that seem to be plucked out of time and dropped into their own globe of relevance each time they are renewed.
With so much emotion and so many ribbons of the past littering the match’s subtext, it’s impossible to assign normal significance to the most intense of rivalries. No matter when they’re played, or where either team is in the standings, the slate is clean.
And so we have Portland and Seattle, MLS’s most intense and genuine rivalry, ready to renew hostilities for the first time in 2016 on Sunday (12 p.m. PT; FOX/KIRO 97.3 FM/El Rey 1360AM).
Clear the slate.
At least on paper, the onus is clearly on Seattle to make something happen. Portland enters Sunday’s tilt at Providence Park sporting a tidy three-match unbeaten streak (worth noting all three were draws), and they sit a relatively comfortable seventh in the Western Conference, just one win and a few results elsewhere away from being in third.
Did I mention Portland is at home? With the second-best homefield advantage in the league at their back?
Seattle’s pressure to win lessened considerably when the Sounders managed a rousing 5-0 win over Western Conference-leading FC Dallas at midweek. That threw the gear out of park, put an emphatic end to a four-match winless streak and got Seattle moving in a positive direction. In the same way it’s hard not to smile on a jet ski, it’s nearly impossible not to engender positive locker room morale after a win by a margin of five goals.
But Seattle is not out of the woods yet.
The Sounders are still ninth in the West, eight points behind the final playoff spot. Each time it looked as though the Sounders were preparing a turnaround this season, the momentum slowed and sputtered to a halt. Indeed, Seattle only cobbled together back-to-back wins once over the first half of the season, and it hasn’t even had consecutive positive results since the beginning of May.
What better way to announce that you have formally returned to the fray than to throw back the Timbers in their own home on national television?
Crucially, the Sounders will be without Clint Dempsey, who picked up a red card for hands to the face against Juan Ortiz on Wednesday. As we discussed earlier this week, that’s an important miss for Seattle, which relies upon Dempsey to create his own chances in front of goal. Even if he isn’t necessarily looking to create for anyone else with regularity, Dempsey still racks up a handful of solid chances every game. With Dempsey missing, Seattle’s expected goals ratio tends to drop precipitously.
Matters were made worse for Seattle on Friday when Portland coach Caleb Porter announced Diego Valeri was fit and raring to go for Sunday after missing the last three matches with an ankle injury. Valeri is probably more crucial to Portland’s build-up play than Dempsey is to Seattle, and without Valeri these last three games Portland managed just one goal and a paltry number of chances. Even with Dempsey out, Seattle manages shots, they just aren’t always dangerous ones.
As you do when any key member of the opposition is questionable, Seattle’s likely been prepping on a short week as though Valeri would play to cover its bases. Now that he is, the formation we’re likely to see out of Seattle is even more predictable.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has stuck by the 4-3-3 all season, and while the rotating front three have at times struggled to maintain shape, the middle trio of Cristian Roldan, Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg have slowly coalesced into a uniquely coherent central midfield trio. While the chance creation isn’t always there, the trio does a quality job of shielding the back line and keeping difficult chances off their backs. Even when the goals haven’t been there, the defense has been quality, and that starts with some combination of those three stymying runs from deep.
The unpredictability in it from an opposing attack sense is that you’re never quite sure who’s going to be where. Sometimes Friberg steps up with a late run, and sometimes it’s Alonso cutting out a difficult pass from deep. And sometimes Roldan is hounding your creator to the corner flag. As long as the Sounders’ defensive unit knows what to expect - and the low goals against total would indicate they do - that kind of rotation tends to give players like Valeri fits.
Of course Portland has other weapons to worry about, namely Darlington Nagbe and imperial striker Fanendo Adi, arguably the best pure No. 9 in the league. Dousing those threats is no easy task for anyone, even one of the sturdier defensive setups in the league. Good thing for Seattle that captain Brad Evans returned to the fray on Wednesday. The Sounders will need him.
Since the first meeting between these teams in 1975, the Sounders have owned the series by winning 48 of the 92 games contested between the teams. But those 92 games engendered a sort of parallel universe when these teams get together that seems to belie whatever is going on outside that one match. Take the last meeting between these teams, a 2-1 Seattle win on Aug. 28, 2015. After some desperate summer struggles, that match kicked off a three-month unbeaten streak that took the Sounders through their final playoff loss to FC Dallas in penalties. Technically, Seattle ended the season with it still intact.
Will Sunday’s match have a similar effect on a season Seattle fervently hopes is on the turnaround? We’ll soon find out.