By now, it’s well documented that Seattle Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer has kept a photo of former Portland Timbers Head Coach Caleb Porter on his desk. The photo was from the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals, when the Timbers defeated the Sounders 5-3 on aggregate in their first postseason meeting in the longtime rivals’ MLS histories.
Five years later, Seattle and Portland meet again, when the Sounders visit the Timbers in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals at Providence Park on Sunday (2:30 p.m. PT; ESPN, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM). Schmetzer & Co. are ready to flip the script and carry their momentum from a historic second half of the season into their biggest matches of the year.
“This adds a little spice to the mix,” Schmetzer said on Friday of the playoff matchup with Portland. “You’ve got [postseason matches against them in] 1975, 2004, 2005, 2013, which we didn’t like, and now you have 2018. It adds a little bit to it. It’s going to be a mentally challenging match. We can’t get it into a bar fight, but if it comes to a bar fight, we’ve got to be prepared.”
The Sounders enter Sunday’s first leg as the hottest team in MLS, having won 14 out of 16 matches, including finishing the season on a five-match run. Portland rested most of its starters on the final day of the season in a road loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, a move that paid off as the Timbers knocked off FC Dallas on the road on Wednesday.
Nicolás Lodeiro vs. the Timbers in August | USA Today Sports
“It’s going to be a final,” said midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro. “They know us, and we know them, but each game is different. We have to be concentrated and play the full 90 minutes, 180 minutes.
“There’s no tomorrow. If you lose this [series], you’re done.”
Two of the league’s best playmakers will go head-to-head again in Lodeiro and Portland’s Diego Valeri. Lodeiro finished third in MLS in assists this season with 16 from just 27 matches. He led the league with eight game-winning assists and enters the playoffs with seven assists in the last four matches, helping the Sounders secure the No. 2 seed in the West and a Knockout Round bye.
Valeri is the reigning MLS MVP and finished 2018 with 10 goals and 12 assists. He recorded a brace in Dallas this week to lift the Timbers into the conference semifinals and pulls the strings tremendously in Portland’s offense.
“For me and Ozzie [Alonso], it’s going to be important to stay close [to Valeri], and we have to make sure we don’t lose the ball in the wrong positions to give them easy counterattacks because that’s what they’re good at,” said midfielder Gustav Svensson. “They play very direct and have good players up front. We have to make sure we minimize the space they have to work in, and the easiest answer to that is to try and have the ball all the time. It’s going to be a hard game, it’s always a hard game against Portland.”
The Sounders aren’t going to bunker in Portland either. To sit back and let the Timbers pressure them all match would be foolish, according to Schmetzer.
The Sounders celebrate Kim Kee-hee’s goal against Portland in August | Charis Wilson
“We want to go down to Portland and get a result,” he said. “We want to come back to Seattle and defend our turf. We’re going to go to win both games. That’s the objective. We will not play just for a draw. We will go out and try to score. We understand the value of road goals.”
The Timbers’ win in Dallas midweek was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory. Starting center back Larrys Mabiala, who scored twice against the Sounders in June, was ejected and will be suspended for the first leg. Fellow center back Liam Ridgewell and defensive midfielder Diego Chara each picked up yellow cards. If either pick up a yellow card on Sunday, they will be suspended for the second leg at CenturyLink Field on Thursday, Nov. 8 (7:30 p.m. PT | TICKETS).
The hardest part of the match for the Sounders will be in the opening stages, when Portland will try and blitz them at home from the get-go. But if Seattle can weather that early storm, and capitalize on its chances, then it should set up nicely for the return leg four days later.
“It’s up to us to make sure that we don’t give them too much in those [initial] 15-20 minutes,” said Svensson. “We know that this game means a lot for the franchise. It’s an important game, not only for the playoffs, but also because it’s our rivals.”