The Sounders faced Portland in midweek Open Cup action and despite needing extra time to seal the win, they dismantled the Timbers both in the competition and — judging by Caleb Porter's post-game reactions — psychologically. The extra wear and tear on the Portland starters in the longer game — much of it chasing the ball while down a player thanks to Diego Chara's straight red — should be an extra advantage for Seattle, who will already feel confident playing from the top of the standings at home in a full stadium game with both Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins coming back fresh.
That said, the Timbers are dangerous. They've always been tough in rivalry games, even in Seattle. Last season they drew 1-1 and lost 0-1 here and then won 2-1 on the road in the playoffs, in the middle of the Sounders' greater late season meltdown. That last result at home is no doubt a major motivating factor for this year's Seattle team.
|Diego Valeri||One of the best pure playmakers in the league. Shutting him down will be job #1 for Seattle's defense.|
|Darlington Nagbe||Mercurial talent has world-class ball control and a monster shot, but struggles with the physicality of the league.|
|Donovan Ricketts||They guy covering up for all of his defense's mistakes. Still one of the best reflexive shot-stoppers in MLS.|
The Timbers' year so far has been defined by inconsistency, particularly in defense. Their deep and dynamic offense has always been able to produce, particularly after the new addition of target man Fenando Adi, and it's helped that Gaston Fernandez and Max Urruti have found some kind of form. They're tied for second in the league in goals with 30, and that's with Darlington Nagbe still struggling to find his goal scoring touch. But they're tied for second worst in the league in goals allowed — also 30. And that's with Donovan Ricketts having another evergreen season in goal. Without him, their already slim playoffs hopes would be snuffed out.
The problem largely lies in their center backs. In the offseason they shipped out David Horst (who's having a pretty good season with Houston) and replaced him with Argentine Norberto Paparatto, who turned out to be mostly a disaster. Pa Modou Kah evidently lost a step, Futty Danso remained inconsistent (and was eventually traded to Montreal), Mikael Silvestre retired, and suddenly the keys to the back line are in the hands of career MLS backup Rauwshan McKenzie and ex-Sounders trialist Danny O'Rourke. Their hopes now rest with newly signed DP center back Liam Ridgewell, who will help test the theory that even mediocre EPL players would dominate MLS, since that's exactly what he is after 200 games played for Birmingham and West Brom.
Ridgewell's availability for Sunday is doubtful, as he's only had a couple of training sessions since his season ended in April. But with the Timbers as desperate as they are to get their season right before it's too late, I wouldn't put it past Porter to throw him out there for a half to see if he can make a difference.
Because without him, and without Chara (who's suspended for MLS yellow card accumulation, not the Open Cup red card), and with Will Johnson struggling to find his place in the center of midfield, the Portland defense will be tremendously vulnerable to Martins and Dempsey (and Lamar Neagle, and Marco Pappa, and DeAndre Yedlin, etc). A shutout for Portland here would take a few minor miracles and a career game from Ricketts. They've only earned one shutout all season, and that was against Chivas with Chara on the field. I do not anticipate another one.
At the other end, they're always a threat to score. In years past, they've relied on set pieces to get results in Seattle, but that's no longer a strength. They're 15th in the league in set piece attempts per game. And with Chad Marshall now manning the upper elevations of Seattle's box, it would be an uphill battle anyway. Instead they'll rely on some combination of Nagbe and Diego Valeri to try to unlock Seattle's defense and defensive midfield and force Marshall to make plays with his feet. But that requires getting through Osvaldo Alonso, whose season has had a resurgence since he's recovered from whatever knocks were apparently ailing him early in the year.
The speed of ex-Sounder Steve Zakuani could give the Timbers an outlet on the left. His pace is no longer what it was, but it's enough to negate most of Yedlin's ability to recover from forays forward from right back. I wouldn't be surprised if feeding the ball to the left wing behind Yedlin isn't a major feature of their gameplan, and it will be up to him to manage the space behind him as well as the rest of the team to provide cover to negate that risk.
Despite their state of flux, the Timbers are not a mystery. Porters has a way he plays and he will do his best to plug players into that system. They'll keep the ball on the ground, outnumber the opponent in the midfield, play short passes to get the ball forward, and then cut you up with deft passes from Valeri and Nagbe. The width ostensibly comes from the fullbacks, but if they're pinned back trying to cover for a porous defense then they can't provide it, which another reason Zakuani can be such a key for them in the attack. If Seattle can shut him down and swarm Valeri in the central midfield, they have a good chance of avoiding a goal. And given Portland's Herculean task of earning a shutout of their own, that would be a win. A win which would restore Seattle to a 7 point lead in the Supporters Shield standings and, as a bonus, drive a nail into a Timber casket.