Many electrons and much ink (which is a form of electron used mostly in the 20th century) has been dedicated to the off-the-field aspects of this weekend's match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. It is, after all, the MLS inauguration of a rivalry which has apparently had the rest of US soccer fandom squirming with anticipation for the last year. But it's worth spending some time looking at what might happen on the field as well.
Most importantly, this will be a difficult match for the Sounders. No matter how much intensity and noise is pouring down from the stands (and there will be a tremendous amount), the team will not be able to simply will themselves to victory. They will have to play hard and play intelligently, because the Timbers come in with some advantages that visitors to Qwest Field rarely enjoy.
First, they will be up for this game. The first scalp in the Cascadia rivalry would be a big, permanent feather in the cap (to brutally mix metaphors) for the Timbers and their fans. And while the intensity that that promises can be a disadvantage if they lose their shape or over-commit, it can also give energy and endurance that can make the difference in 90 minutes.
Second, they won't have the obstacles to overcome that most visitors to Seattle have to deal with. They're familiar with playing on turf — wet turf in particular, and the forecast calls for rain. They're familiar with playing in an environment so loud that verbal communication is almost impossible. And it's the shortest trip any opponent will have to make to Qwest. Those factors — the unfamiliar surface, the noise, the long travel — may be worth a goal or more to the Sounders against a typical opponent, but against the Timbers they'll have to earn that goal back the hard way.
Third, Portland's style of play is one that has always troubled the Sounders. Their offense largely comes from set pieces. Thanks to the delivery of Jack Jewsbury — who's developing into a poor man's Brad Davis — and the big trio of Kenny Cooper, Footy Danso, and Eric Brunner, any corner or dead ball within 40 yards of Kasey Keller will be a dangerous scoring opportunity. Though Seattle has improved on set piece defense recently, it's a problem that's hampered the team for most of its existence. The Timbers will be going down early and often to create set piece opportunities, and with three big targets the Sounders will have to rely on both centerbacks and some help from the target forward coming back to cover.
The Timber lineup is pretty much a bog-standard 4-4-2 with Cooper playing big man and Jorge Perlaza playing fast man. Both have a tendency to hug the defensive line. The Timbers offense that isn't from set pieces mostly relies on direct through balls through the middle as both forwards jump the defensive line. That means they get called for a ton of offsides (in which they lead the league) but if they can get just two or three off a game, those become dangerous chances.
The tendency to play through the middle is reinforced by the fact that the two wingers — rookie Darlington Nagbe and Khalif Alhassan — both like to cut inside in the offensive third. Rather than getting the proverbial chalk from the sideline on their boots, both can be seen floating all over through the offensive midfield. That means the width comes from the fullbacks who overlap on both sides to provide the occasional cross from deep near the corner. That can also leave them open. In their last game the most dangerous attack from the Philadelphia Union came when the left back pushed too high and Danny Mwanga was being marked on the wing by center back Danso, who had no chance to stop the speedy winger.
The Sounders will likely be lining up with the group that played against DC United with the now healthy Brad Evans back on the right wing and Erik Friberg back into the center, though those two could switch places comfortably. Given the dangerous height of the Portland attack you might see the Jeff Parke/Jhon Kennedy Hurtado centerback pairing that began the season before Patrick Ianni began to rotate in. The other open question is left back, where we've seen Tyson Wahl play the last few games thanks to his ball handling and service. That might be the right call again given Nagbe's tendency to cut to the middle, which could leave Wahl free to distribute.
- Osvaldo Alonso vs Diego Chara - With two wingers who like to drift in and two offensively minded midfielders in Chara and Jewsbury, most of the Portland threat comes right in the middle of Alonso's territory. His ability to disrupt attacking movements and dispossess attackers will be crucial in cutting off the Timber attack in the run of play.
Hurtado vs Cooper - Cooper is a danger both on set pieces and with the ball at his feet, so whoever Seattle puts on him will have to be well positioned and be strong in the air. Hurtado's still working back into full game shape from his year away, but he's shown some brilliance. His main weakness seems to be dealing with speed, so he should probably stay away from Perlaza, who happens to be his cousin.
- Evans vs Rodney Wallace - The Timbers left back has shown a tendency to get up into the attack, which can leave the central defenders under pressure. Evans has the ability to exploit those holes and deliver dangerous balls to Fredy Montero, Nate Jaqua, and Alvaro Fernandez crashing into the box.