It seems almost crazy to say right now, but the Cascadia Cup might be the least of the Seattle Sounders' concerns when they play the Portland Timbers on Sunday. Obviously, winning the rivalry is important. But the rivalry itself, in this case, takes a back seat.
The Sounders, as we are all painfully aware, are in a bit of a crisis. As recently as two weeks ago, this was lining up to be the most successful season in team history. The Supporters' Shield was there for the taking. The Cascadia Cup was all but locked up. Making the playoffs was of virtually no concern. Winning the MLS Cup was obviously going to be a challenge, but there was every reason to believe that they were one of the favorites to at least get there.
Two blowout losses later and there are some very serious questions:
Who's going to be in goal?
It probably shouldn't come as a huge shock that Sigi Schmid refused to say who was going to be the starting goalkeeper against the Timbers. Although he and goalkeeping coach Tommy Dutra went to great length to say they hadn't lost faith in Michael Gspurning's abilities, there's some understandable concern about the Austrian's confidence.
Over the course of two games, Gspurning has seen his goals against average rise from 1.02 to 1.26 and his save percentage drop from .713 to .667. A goalkeeper who had only given up as many as three goals in a game twice in his first 46 appearances has suddenly given up at least four in two straight.
Gspurning was brought in partly because the Sounders believed he had the kind of mental makeup to be able to follow a legend like Kasey Keller, but he's probably never gone through something quite like this.
It would be relatively easy for the coaching staff to give him the day off against the Timbers and allow Marcus Hahnemann to face the Sounders' biggest rivals for the first time in his illustrious career.
Every indication is that the Sounders believe Gspurning is the better goalkeeper, both now and moving forward. The decision they make for the Timbers game could create its own set of questions.
Let's say Hahnemann plays reasonably well and the Sounders win. The Sounders have suggested any move this week might only be temporary, so does Gspurning get the starting job back next week against FC Dallas? If not then, does that mean Hahnemann is the starter for as long as the Sounders are alive in the playoffs? Where does that leave the Sounders in the offseason?
Can the Sounders rely upon their biggest names?
The Sounders will not be at full strength against the Timbers. At the very least, Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans are going to be missing. But there's reason to believe that Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins will both be in uniform and quite possibly able to start.
Just given that possibility, there's every reason to think the Sounders have the talent to win this game.
I'm not saying the Sounders should force either of those two onto the field if they aren't actually fit, but there's not going to be a more important time for them to try than now. Martins and Dempsey might be the two most talented players in MLS and are certainly two of the more accomplished. They've played and succeeded on the biggest stages and in the best leagues. They've scored important goals in high-pressure games. That's the reason they are here.
While it may sound like hyperbole, the Sounders' season could well come to be defined by this game. Lose and there's almost nothing the Sounders can do in their final two regular seasons to significantly raise the spirits around the fan base. A win, however, qualifies the Sounders for the playoffs, keeps the Supporters' Shield a very real possibility, reclaims the Cascadia Cup and makes everything seem possible again.
You can say form is fiction all you want, but confidence is very real and this team needs an injection of that in the very worst way. Martins and Dempsey have the ability to provide it.
Who is this team?
After the Rapids loss, Schmid stressed that one bad game does not define a season. After the Whitecaps loss, he had a similar message. This team has not lost three straight games since that horrible run in 2010 that was part of a 2-7-1 stretch. In 2010 it was early enough in the season to be overcome. But three straight losses now could prove irreparable.
The most obvious problem has been the defense, which had been among the league's best until this recent spell. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who was looking as if he had regained his 2009 vintage, has reverted to the player that drives so many fans crazy. Djimi Traore, once a defensive stalwart, has looked a step slow. Marc Burch, so comfortable at left mid, has looked a bit lost at left back.
But the defensive breakdowns have also masked an offense that has done too little with the many chances they've been able to create. In the last 10 games, the Sounders have scored multiple goals just twice and one of those was in a game that featured an own-goal.
While the scoring issues were a mere annoyance for most of that time, they have been quite stark in the last two. The Sounders have managed 34 shots, 16 of which have come from inside the penalty area. The chances are there, the execution is not. Balls have hit off the woodwork. Open chances haven't been put on goal. Players have gotten in each other's way. Strong runs have been completely missed. Miscommunication has been everywhere. Finish a few more of those and maybe the defense isn't as exposed and the games change.
Contrary to how it may feel, everything is not entirely broken. A win on Sunday sets virtually everything right. The Cascadia Cup will be back in its rightful home. The Shield will be there for the taking. The MLS Cup will, once again, seem like a real possibility. But something has to change, and it needs to change now.