True story. Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers met so early in the season that neither team had a win yet. Four matches later Sigi's men earned their first W. It took just two for Porter's boys to earn another (that isn't a slight, they are just yougner). Seattle's record post Cascadia Cup round one is 10-7-3 +5 and Portland is 9-2-10 +13. The difference in sides is entirely in draws. One side has a strong offense and great defense. The other an average attack with a great defense. Each enters their Sunday night 7 PM match with sights set on a run to the top of the Western Conference.
How did they get to this point? Round one of Three Questions with Michael from Stumptown Footy is about the season to this point. A second set of Three Questions will look at the particulars for the match itself.
SaH: Portland's reinvented formation and tactics get labeled as Porterball simply. What does he have them doing on the pitch that is unique or new to MLS?
STF: The system Caleb Porter has instituted at Portland is not nearly as radical as advertised. Mostly Porter has taken a few concepts and merged them into one, aggressive style: high pressing, quick passing, players who can move through several positions and very high fitness levels. When all are working in concert, the Timbers are a very difficult team to defend against. Each game starts with the same formation, though usually with one or two tweaks (aside from injuries/suspensions) based on the opponent. He might flip the outside backs or overload one side instead of another, again, depending on who is lined up opposite Portland. These changes are less dramatic than people want to believe, but the subtle adjustments and demands of extreme proficiency are really what allow this system to work. Oh, and the players.
SaH: Expectations for the season continue to raise. Is their a final spot in the standings that will satisfy the fanbase at this point?
STF: Porter has specifically identified 51 points as a target that the club thinks will guarantee them a playoff position. With ten games left, that would require twelve points from the Timbers, which seems very reasonable for a team that's only lost three times this season. For most of the past few months, Portland has been near the top of at least the Western Conference table. If the team finished in fifth position, fans would likely be disappointed. But otherwise, playoffs are certainly the expectation at this point in the year. Not winning the Supporters Shield would not lead to mass protests, especially given how poor the club's first two MLS seasons were.
SaH: This is a top defense in the league right now, but lacks a signature player on the backline. What is it that's led to that success?
STF: Defensive strength for Portland is an interesting notion. Consistent injury issues at center back have seen five different starters while five different right backs have been included in at least one starting XI. Some of that is Porter tinkering and some of it is an evolving idea of which players are best suited for the offensive system in place. Mostly, Porter likes to say his team defends with the ball. Routinely holding 55% or more of possession, Timbers' opponents have chances limited by a lack of the ball. Additionally, the pressing from attacking players as soon as the ball is lost keeps the defenders from seeing as much activity in the defensive third. Where Portland struggles defensively is when the game is brought to a halt for a set piece or when too many Timbers get forward into the attack and large spaces are available behind the midfield. Donovan Ricketts has also had a great season, cleaning up a number of times after defensive miscues. The best way to answer this question, then, is to say that there are a number of ways that the Timbers cover up the fact that their defense is not particularly strong.
STF: How much of an adjustment is needed to fully incorporate Clint Dempsey into the team? Does it require a particular change in set up or change in emphasis among the other big name players?
SaH: We have no idea. One of the oddities of the Dempsey signing is that in the first two games he was used as a forward despite all indications from Sigi being that long term he would likely be in the midfield. There are some legitimate reasons for this. Dempsey first came on for Obafemi Martins after an injury and so the EJ/Dempsey pairing played out that match at Toronto. Then Eddie Johnson had to sit out due to card accumulation while Martins was still injured.
So the first time that the three headed strike machine will take the pitch is against Portland. Sounders fans, Timbers fans, and the entire nation will get to see how Sigi gets them working together. It will probably mean that Dempsey is more of a creator while the other two stay high, but that's only a logical guess.
STF: This season's signings (Joseph, Traore, Martins, Dempsey) seem to indicate a win now philosophy in Seattle, rather a longer term team development. Is that fair to say?
SaH: Put like that it is hard to argue. Seattle got older in its top 15 players in the last off-season (not just by adding a year to everyone). Yes, they have one of the better young players in the league at right back, but that does not make up for clearly past peak players like Joseph and Traore as well as late-peak guys like Martins and Dempsey. Of course all of those are players who at their peak are well beyond MLS skill level guys. What will matter this year is how far they've fallen (Martins and Traore look fine, Joseph is rarely healthy). If Sounders FC has a second year and third year in this "window" it will be because they transition to new talent in some places rather than count on the aging guys to be great forever.
STF: For most of the season, the Sounders have had multiple games in hand against every other Western Conference team. Has the relatively low position on the table created more negative feelings about this season than might reflect the team's on field performances?
SaH: Absolutely. With expectations that are as high as ever every single loss is seen by a significant portion of the fanbase as a disaster. With a table looks so out of whack due to games in hand people are even more likely to lose it. The perception of failure is easily fueled when the standings are listed by pure points. It also won't be corrected until late September. Until then every loss will result in a level of panic that has little basis in reality.