Derby Cliche. Rivalry Cliche. Another derby cliche. Historical rivalry cliche. Changing American soccer cliche. Awakening MLS cliche.
There, now that all the off-field stuff is taken care of let's focus a bit on the players and tactics that will determine victory, which is a large element of why we love this game. The Portland Timbers are represented by Stumptown Footy on SB Nation and we check in with Managing Editor Geoff Gibson about what has changed with the team since that very hot start, the once impregnable Glass House and why this expansion team hasn't been as successful as the 2009 MLS expansion side.
SaH: What happened to the set-play magic that led to that stunning start by the Timbers?
SF: Who's to say? I don't think any team can truly rely on set plays forever and I called it as much even as far back as the last Seattle game. There's too many variables to rely on. That said, the reason why the Timbers have done well in the past with them is because the team has quite a few tall players in Kenny Cooper, Futty Danso, Eric Brunner, Kevin Goldthwaite... amongst others. I think at the moment, the most important thing for the Timbers is to get the strikers scoring in the run of play to rebuild their confidence. Not that they won't take a set-piece goal if it comes, but getting Kenny Cooper's and Jorge Perlaza's confidence up is probably better for the long run.
SaH: Once upon a time Kenny Cooper was a threat to lead the league in goals in any healthy season, now he's struggling to maintain his role. Is it poor streak, or has something about him fundamentally changed?
SF: Poor streak combined with a team that's not gelling as fast as everybody was hoping. I don't think anybody can deny Kenny Cooper's skill. The man shattered Troy Perkin's knee in the pre-season. His 18 goals scored in 2008 was higher than the top goal scorers in 2009 and tied for 2010. As much as some might like to say that MLS has grown since 2008, it simply hasn't grown so much so as to outpace Kenny Cooper's abilities. He may be in a rough patch right now, and he's not the golden boy everybody thought he was back in April, but he's still able to play in this league. Whether he ultimately gels with the Portland Timbers or not remains to be seen.
SaH: Troy Perkins numbers are mediocre or worse, how's his actual play been?
SF: He's a good keeper. I think it would be unfair to lay at his feet the recent string of bad games. In fact, aside from a couple of goals I'd say most of that was huge defensive gafs. I'd liken him to being in a similar position as Toronto FC's Stefan Frei. At some point, if the defensive backline doesn't control the situation, an opposing player is going to score. It doesn't matter if the goalkeeper is Van der Sarr, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller or Troy Perkins. He can only do so much to keep the ball out. Troy Perkins has also been up for 3-4 Save of the Weeks thus far this year, which should be indicative of his overall skill.
SF: Still only a handful of goals from Fredy Montero. As a Designated Player has he so far been a disappointment for fans this season? When are you expecting him to break out of his shell and score regularly again?
SaH: Many fans are saying that Montero is disappointing. There are some that even equate it to him no longer being "hungry" due to the DP status. This seems to be another variant of the "lazy" theme and both are wrong. First off, making Fredy a DP had as much to do with his performance on the field as it did to assure that Seattle would get compensation when he moves on to another league, which he will be doing. His on ball skills are quite strong. There are few in the league that can strike the ball in set-play circumstances like he can, not just pressuring the keeper, but scoring world class goals. While his off-ball runs are lacking, he still has the ability to feed his teammates and score goals. The largest issue with those judging him may be with how they see him as a striker, rather than someone who is half-forward/half-attacking mid.
SF: Seattle's midfield is surprisingly strong. What do you attribute to this strength? Why are Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans leading the goal scoring? Is Mauro Rosales providing the best service?
SaH: The anchor of the midfield is Osvaldo Alonso. His ability to win the ball and immediately distribute and spark attacks enables everything else the midfield does. Alonso enables either the diamond, an attacking band of three or even a four man midfield in front of him to do a tiny bit less defensively freeing them to pressure high and release for quick counters.
Mauro Rosales brings the ball up at his feet with strong dribbling skills, or can still sprint the wide ball along the right touchline. His ability to cross the ball into threatening positions is strongest on the team, and his partner on the right is the second best at that so he and Riley can mix up things quite a bit. Alvaro Fernandez was at the World Cup this time last year. He isn't going to stun anyone with his speed, wide play from him will be fairly conservative but his first touch is strong. He can use a flick and move to quickly spring up in threatening places. His interplay with the forwards and Erik Friberg creates marking issues in that they can't be guarded by equal numbers in zones because they will flood a space then quickly empty it.
That the midfield is this strong without Steve Zakuani is just a declaration of how much depth the Sounders have.
SF: Looking back defensively, what's it going to take to break down the backline? What are their biggest weaknesses and what are their biggest strengths?
SaH: The best way to break the Seattle defense is to catch them getting too far forward in the attack and quickly counter. In standard run of play they are one of the strongest defensive squads in the league, and as Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's lateral speed returns will only get better. So watch Riley and Tyson Wahl and if both are forward Jeff Parke and Hurtado can be beaten. A low entry pass tends to be better than an American football style punt as Parke is very strong in the air.