The Seattle Sounders are hosting the Portland Timbers on Thursday (7:30 p.m. PT; FS1, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM | TICKETS) in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. Here are three matchups that could decide the match at CenturyLink Field.
Nicolás Lodeiro vs. Diego Chara
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We’ll find out on Thursday as Lodeiro and Chara square off for control of the midfield. Lodeiro, who broke the franchise record for career assists with 36, will be critical to Seattle setting the tempo of the match and unlocking Portland’s defense. Chara put in an impressive display on Sunday, tallying two tackles, one interception, four clearances and eight recoveries. If Lodeiro can drag Chara out of position with his relentless off-the-ball movement, thus creating gaps for the likes of Víctor Rodríguez and Raul Ruidíaz to exploit, then the Sounders will get plenty of chances.
Lodeiro and Chara battle for possession in Leg One | Mike Fiechtner
Raúl Ruidíaz vs. Larrys Mabiala
The Peruvian forward and Congolese center back have yet to meet this season, as Mabiala didn’t feature in Seattle’s 1-0 win at Portland on August 26 and was suspended for Leg 1. Mabiala, who stands at 6’2”, is a dominant aerial presence, making it unlikely that Ruidíaz will win many lofted crosses into the box. That’s not really Ruidíaz's game, though, as he generates most of his chances with clever, subtle movements in the box. While he reads the game well, Mabiala struggles in his 1-v-1 defending, especially when it comes to making tackles. If Ruidíaz can drive at him in the final third, or create separation on early, low crosses into the box, he’ll get opportunities to recreate the magic of his goal in Leg One.
Ruidíaz celebrates his goal against Portland in the first leg | Mike Fiechtner
Stefan Frei vs. Everybody
Simply put, Frei comes alive in the playoffs. While his most memorable moment of the Sounders’ title run in 2016 was The Save, he was an absolute force in every match throughout the postseason. With Seattle needing to come flying out of the gates on Thursday, there’s no doubt that Frei will have to pull off some impressive stops to keep the Timbers from scoring a crucial away goal. Moreover, with Portland likely to sit back and soak up pressure, Seattle’s No. 24 could play an important role in building out of the back with his distribution. Time and time again, Frei has rescued the Sounders with timely saves and aerial dominance. He’ll need to put in one of his classic shifts on Thursday if the Sounders hope to advance to the Western Conference Championship for the third consecutive season.