Seattle against Portland is the best rivalry in MLS.
It has everything: history, tradition, success and a general dislike between the fanbases. When these sides meet, it’s always the marquee game of the season.
To get an understanding of what to expect, I took a look back at the four Sounders-Timbers clashes last year.
Sounders FC won the first meeting of 2020 at Providence Park with a slew of late goals, including a brace from Raúl Ruidíaz, but would only pick up one point from the next three matchups against Gio Savarese’s men.
So, what was the issue?
Portland’s gameplay after losing that first match against the Sounders was simple: allow Seattle to have possession in non-threatening areas and deny the space in behind with a deep defensive line, nullifying the threat of Jordan Morris and slowing the tempo of the Seattle’s play.
With Portland sitting back and soaking up pressure, Seattle had to be wary of the Timbers’ counter-attacking threat. In each of the last three games between the Cascadia rivals, the Rave Green denied opportunities in transition, but the issue was that Portland scored early and was able to sit back and protect the lead. This isn’t to say Portland didn’t have their moments in these games – at times they would press higher and create chances, but this was only for short spell. The possession figures and passing counts in these games illustrate it was the Sounders that were the protagonist.
So how will these tactics affect the first meeting of the 2021 season on Sunday (12:00 p.m. PT; ABC, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 am)?
Sounders FC Attack:
The last couple of games have seen Brad Smith provide constant width on the left-hand side, with his pace stretching opposition and putting him in goal-scoring positions. If Portland employs the same tactics as last season, it may be a little more difficult for Smith to get in behind their defensive line, but his ability to deliver from wide areas can still be a threat. Seattle now has two strikers in central areas, and the added aerial threat with Will Bruin, who scored in the final meeting last season, provides a different way of exploiting the deep defensive line of Portland.
Cristian Roldan also can be an attacking threat in a number of ways. He has the ability to offer late runs into the area to get on the end of Smith’s service and can also provide width when he drifts to the right himself. Roldan’s role has been as an attacking midfielder, and his willingness to overload the right and deliver crosses has made him a difficult player for opposition defenders to pin down.
Sounders FC Defensive Tactics:
Normally having your full backs in high attacking positions can leave you open to teams like Portland, who are excellent in transition. But with Sounders FC deploying three center backs, it offers better balance and makes it less likely the space in behind the wingbacks is exploited.
When Smith does get forward, Nouhou is very adept at defending the spaces he leaves open.
In midfield, the key will be denying Diego Valeri the space to get on the ball and provide service to speedy attackers like Yimmi Chara and Dairon Asprilla. That will be the job of João Paolo, whose ability to read the play and step into passing lanes is not just an asset defensively, it also allows the Sounders to turn defense into attack in an instant. The three center backs can’t allow themselves to all be occupied by the lone striker, likely to be Felipe Mora. If they do, then the Portland wingers will pin Seattle’s wingbacks to a deeper defensive position, making it easier for Portland to absorb any attacking thrusts from the Sounders. So, Nouhou and Yeimar have to continually be aggressive in defending wide spaces to allow the wing backs to get forward.
Bruin might not have scored yet this season, but his linkup play has been integral to Sounders FC’s early success in this new system. His involvement in the opening two goals against LA last weekend was excellent. In this game, I think he can be the man to unlock the Portland defense by getting on the end of the service from wide areas.