Perhaps more than any other player on the Seattle Sounders' roster, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning seems to enjoy the game almost from a fans' perspective. While some players might be annoyed by riding in a cramped plane and playing on a glorified dog track, he seems to relish the opportunity to visit new locales. A sly smile crosses his face when the subject of rivalries comes up.
"Rivalries are the biggest thing in sports, especially in soccer," Gspurning said after Thursday's training session. "We will have a great atmosphere, we’re ready for the game, we want to win the game and also the Cascadia Cup. It’s more than three points and everybody here knows it. At the end of the day, though, it’s just a soccer game and you have to do the same things you do in every game."
It clearly burns Gspurning that he was unable to participate in the first trip to Portland, a game the Sounders lost 2-1 and represented what was the emotional low of the season.
At the time, Gspurning was at home watching the game on TV while still nursing a hip injury that ended up costing him 13 games. The Sounders went 3-4-6 in his absence and at one point went a franchise-record nine games without a win.
The loss to the Timbers was No. 7 in that streak, but it also immediately preceded a 10-match unbeaten streak that included a trip to the U.S. Open Cup final.
Since Gspurning's return, the Sounders have been playing at a different level entirely. With the 6-foot-5 Austrian in goal, the Sounders have gone 5-1-1 in league games and outscored their opponents 18-6. For the season, Gspurning leads all of MLS in winning percentage (he's 10-2-2) and goals against average (.74) and is fourth in save percentage (75.0).
"He’s a huge presence for us," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said. "Not only in terms of his abilities in goal —- he’s a good goalkeeper-— but in terms of what he provides in the locker room and his leadership. He’s just a good guy to have there.
"He’s quick-witted, he’s funny, he’s confident, and he’s also demanding. To have that in the locker room before the game is important. To have that on the field — his organization, what he demands of the people in front of him — helps us, as well. You add to that he’s also one of the better goalkeepers in this league. That makes it a big win for us."
Gspurning's presence might also be the single biggest difference between this meeting and the last one, when Andrew Weber was in goal for the Sounders.
Gspurning knows the Timbers Army will be in his ear for at least a half. He knows the atmosphere will be charged. He knows he's playing an opponent that will be treating this like their Super Bowl. He welcomes it all.
"We have the chance to win this time and we are good until next time," Gspurning said. "It’s always a feeling when you play a rival that you want to win because you are the boss of the region until the next time."