When the Seattle Sounders travel down I-5 to face off against Cascadia Cup rival Portland Timbers they will be doing so with a simple goal - three points. While a draw prevents the Timbers from earning the Cascadia Cup, it is three points that advances the Sounders quest for the top spot in the West and the future earning of the Cup that fuels the team. It will be play on the field that determines victory, not the passion in the stands. There will still be a lot of passion in the stands.
Much has changed since the Sounders lost to the Timbers in their first meeting of the season. Seattle turned a corner and became one of the best teams in the league. The Timbers fired their coach and remain near the bottom of the table. Geoff from Stumptown Footy takes us through Three Questions (more than three questions) looking ahead to the Saturday 12:30 PM match on NBC.
SaH: What are the most significant tactical changes from Spencer to Gavin?
STF: The most significant change since John Spencer was the shift from relying on Kris Boyd up top to relying on Darlington Nagbe. Some have speculated this is due to the fact that Caleb Porter became an early favorite for the head coach position early on in the search. Since Gavin Wilkinson has stepped in Kris Boyd doen't get much playing time, in fact, he's usually brought on as a 80th minute substitute.
Additionally, the Timbers have changed their tactics a bit and have begun to utilize a 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 formation more often than the typical 4-4-2 that Spencer used to rely on so heavily. This usually means that Darlington Nagbe is sitting in the center attacking midfielder position with Franck Songo'o and Sal Zizzo out on the sides with Bright Dike up top as the target man. Everything, however, is focused on Nagbe and getting him into the right spot. Dike, while the man up top, is usually just there to make himself available if Nagbe needs him.
SaH: Is there a player that has stood at as more successful in the new situation?
STF: Sal Zizzo, Bright Dike and Darlington Nagbe have all benefited greatly from the change in power. Dike and Zizzo especially because under the Spencer era they were fringe players usually brought on as late substitutes if brought on at all. Nagbe has been given the star position on the team which has not only bolstered his confidence, but also his performance
Another player who has gotten some decent chances and performed admirably under Wilkinson is Brent Richards, the Timbers first homegrown player signing. While he's since been moved back onto the bench, he was able to get quite a few minutes this year that he never would have been able to get under Spencer.
SaH: With Gavin in charge does the Cascadia Cup take on more importance? Can it?
STF: More importance? I'm not sure how it could have become more important under Wilkinson than Spencer. The Cascadia Cup has always been important to the Timbers' head coaches and the Timbers organization at large. There's been no meaningful change in its important through the transition of Spencer to Wilkinson.
That said, with the play offs pretty much beyond the Timbers' reach at this point winning the Cascadia Cup has become the last vestige of hope for a successful season to the fans.
SaH: Who will be the hero if Portland wins?
STF: The team. Despite the rocky season they've proven consistently this season that they can perform at home against strong opponents. Both the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City fell at Jeld-Wen when they were at the top of their game as well as both Cascadian rivals. While more consistency would be appreciated throughout the season, a win against Seattle on Saturday would prove that the team has the wherewithal to win something important.
Tough call but here's my best guess:
Donovan Ricketts; Kosuke Kimura, David Horst, Hanyer Mosquera, Rodney Wallace; Sal Zizzo, Jack Jewsbury, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, Franck Songo'o; Bright Dike
Unfortunately Steven Smith, the Timbers' strong left back will be serving a suspension this Saturday so there's a lot of variability in that position for Saturday.
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STF: With the Cascadia Cup on the line, how to you anticipate the Seattle Sounders will approach the game on Saturday?
SaH: Sigi stated quite clearly that they want these points. He doesn't care about the national TV aspect and the growth of the league. He wants to be able to snap up first in the West if San Jose falters and he'd like to retain the Cascadia Cup because the fans deserve it. The squad is well rested and generally healthy. Lineup decisions will not be made based off the upcoming CCL match against Marathon in Honduras, but on how to win on Saturday.
STF: Alvaro Fernandez was recently traded to the Chicago Fire in order for Seattle to bring in Christian Tiffert. How has this trade worked out so far? Has Tiffert performed like he was supposed to? Does the team miss the dynamism of Fernandez?
SaH: Out on the left wing you could see Steve Zakuani, Alex Caskey, Brad Evans or Mario Martinez. Each brings a different aspect to the game, but if a team knows they have that many options at the left wing they can afford to lose the strong footskills and backpost headers of Fernandez. They still tried to keep him and sign Tiffert, but league rules got in the way.
By adding Tiffert they improved their defense up the spine as he's better than Evans at that, while also improving their medium to long passes from that same role. Tiffert is everything that a coach likes about Evans and Brad Davis. He reads the game well, is always looking for a better position to be in and is capable of passes that are rare in MLS. He's not the type of player that is going to rack up huge numbers, but his passing helps the team move the ball into more threatening spaces. He also provides strong set-play service, which gives more threats on indirect kicks specifically.
STF: Osvaldo Alonso is still listed on Seattle's injury list. Can we expect to see him on Saturday? If not, who comes in and replaces him on the field? If so, how does he impact the game in order to get a different result that the last time Seattle played in Portland?
SaH: Alonso was nearly a full participant in practice on Tuesday. There's little reason to think he won't be ready. Alonso is one of the best in MLS at stopping ball control midfielders recently shutting down David Ferreira, but has handled Landon Donovan and Javier Morales as well. When Alonso plays it forces the opposition to use the flanks more than they would traditionally. On the narrow field down in Portland he can help out more in those situations too. There isn't a defensive midfielder in MLS as good as he is. Playing against diamond midfields or three-band attacking systems he stops their standard system of attack.
STF: Who is one player expected to start for Seattle that Timbers fans might not recognize but makes a huge impact? What does he do, what kind of impact does he make?
SaH: The least known regular Sounders starter down there is probably Michael Gspurning. He has yet to play against Portland due to an injury early in the year. The keeper is a leading keeper in the league in categories like save percentage, goals against average and even shutouts despite only playing in about half the games that most starters have. Gspurning is a puncher rather than catcher, but unlike American punchers in the pipes he uses his punches to start attacks. He's also quite tall which helps defend crosses and dead ball service. Unlike the backup keepers who can help keep the game close, Gspurning is capable of dominating performances and Keller-esque saves. His worst "error" of the year was coming off his line early during the US Open Cup Final's PK shoot-out. Besides that moment he does not get beat in notable ways. Losses can not be pinned on him in fact he's only lost twice with ten wins and two draws. He is Cerberus, the three-headed dog.