Portland Timbers FC come to Seattle on Sunday (FoxSports 1, 6:30 PM) with a simple goal: Take points from the Seattle Sounders. Sure, there's a Cascadia Cup on the line, both teams are worried about MLS Cup Playoff positioning, there are health and suspension concerns. But the goal every time these teams meet ignores all of that. There are no excuses. Win or lose. That's it.
Since Nos Audietis had Chris Rifer from Stumptown Footy on, the search for someone to answer Three Questions ranged far and wide. It ended right here on Sounder at Heart with resident Timbers fan pdb. Pbd is a contributor at The Short Fuse. The first two questions were submitted via fans from the Sounder at Heart Facebook page.
SaH: Should Nagbe be scoring a lot more or is something else going on that people who don't watch every Timbers game might not catch?
pdb: Ah, the Darlington Nagbe Conundrum. Darlington Nagbe is one of those players you have to watch pretty closely, but when you do, you'll be very impressed with what you see. He's a similar player to Mesut Ozil in that way - if all you look for is the obvious end product, you miss most of what he brings. You know that old cliché about jazz, that it's not the notes but the spaces between the notes that make it what it is? That's Nagbe. He seems to have become allergic to scoring, which of course is an unfortunate thing for an attacking midfielder, but he does so much else so well that I'll give him time to relocate his scoring touch. He pulls defenses towards him, he moves really well without the ball, and he's got what they call in basketball "great court vision" - he's 95% amazing at this point. I want him to start scoring more, as do most Timbers fans, but until he does, I'll just watch him do what he does and be thankful he does it for the Timbers.
SaH: Why are they so "high" on Ridgewell? He seems to get caught flat footed and standing when goals go in.
pdb: First off, two bias-revealing caveats: a) I think Liam Ridgewell's a good defender overall and b) I am not as opposed as some to the idea of a DP centerback. Okay, now that those are out of the way, here's an answer. Liam Ridgewell is exactly what the Timbers needed in 2014: someone who could organize a defense and be vocal about it. What a lot of Timbers fans called the Great Wall of Gambia, and what I referred to as A Disaster Waiting To Happen, was broken up when Futty Danso was sent to Montreal after 2013; in his absence, Pa Modou Kah, who can be charitably described as "a super nice guy who had no business starting on a good MLS team" was paired with the likes of a then-19 year old Alvas Powell and Norberto Paparrato, none of whom were able to do anything cohesive with a back line that started the 2014 season giving up four late goals to your lot and just kept being clownshoes from there, particularly on set pieces.
So, Ridgewell became available, and all the usual American things kicked in - he's English! He's played in the Premier League! He's gotta be good, right? Let's overvalue him! - and he became a DP CB. As mentioned, I'm not opposed to such a thing; I'm just not sure Ridgewell's a DP-quality player. He is very good at organizing a back line, which the Timbers need, but there have been two incidents this season alone where he and Nat Borchers, his linemate, have both closed in on a ball only to both stop, as if the other was going to get it, and let the ball go by. The first time, it cost a goal, and last week it was just embarrassing, but until Ridgewell can get those brainfarts out of his system, I would put him in the "good but not great" category and wonder why they spent DP money on him, while still being glad he's around and saying "not my money not my problem".
SaH: How much of the early season is a holding pattern waiting for Valeri/Johnson to return?
pdb: The easy answer in March was "All of it", but as the season has progressed, I have to modify that a bit. The Timbers should not be struggling the way they currently are, even without Valeri and (to a lesser extent) Johnson and Ben Zemanski, who was supposed to be Valeri's backup until he tore his ACL in preseason. At a certain point, watching attacking players run into four guys at once, or pass to nobody, can't be explained away merely by saying "Valeri and Johnson aren't out there" - the guys on the field have to perform, and most of the attack is not performing right now, at all. Orlando City made the Timbers look like the expansion team, as did NYCFC, where the Timbers got the three least deserved points in their MLS life (which make no mistake, I will happily accept).
That said, both Valeri and Johnson are back in full training now, and while Valeri may not be ready for Sunday, he'll almost certainly play a role of some sort next week against Vancouver. And I can't wait.
SaH: Is Adam Larsen Kwarasey going to enjoy having Clint Dempsey score on him? Wait, that's mean. Is Kwarasey better than Ricketts?
pdb: The answer to the former is "no more than Stefan Frei will enjoy having Fanendo Adi score on him". The answer to the latter is a qualified-but-getting-less-so-by-the-week yes. Kwarasey is way more mobile than Ricketts ever was, he's more willing to be a sweeper keeper type guy, and that does help get things moving out of the back for Portland. He punches the ball away when he could catch it a lot more than I would like, but he stood up very tall against NYCFC, and only a Diego Chara brainfart means he can't claim a penalty save against Kaka a couple weeks ago. Nobody was sure what to make of Kwarasey when he was signed, and Ricketts will always be very fondly remembered here thanks to 2013, but I definitely think Kwarasey's an upgrade.
Significant Absences: In addition to the aforementioned Johnson, Valeri, and Zemanski, Rodney Wallace has a calf issue that will keep him sidelined for a couple weeks.
Projected Lineup: Probably not that different from NYCFC. Villafana, Ridgewell, Borders, Powell at the back, Chara, Jewsbury, Asprilla, Nagbe and Yartey as MF, and Adi up front, although with Seattle being a sterner test than NYCFC I could also see Porter reverting to an Adi/Urruti strikeforce up front and leaving new guy Yartey on the bench.
pdb: Seattle are off to a good start so far, but is it a case of "they picked up right where they left off last year" or is this year shaping up to be different from what seemed to be an effortless 2014?
SaH: Last season started rough as well. Well, Seattle Sounders rough, which means merely average. It only looked easy when late summer came about. This year will have some similar challenges. The US National Team will pull key players away. There's bound to be a few significant injuries. Someone will get suspended rather than face a significant rival. In the end, the path to success will be rather similar and the expected result is to contend for all three major trophies of 2015.
pdb: From my admittedly outsider perspective, I had the nagging suspicion that after 2013, last year, as far as roster construction at least, was an all-in, win right now dice roll for the Sounders. Was that at all accurate, and if not, how long does this current team's window remain open?
SaH: Seattle's championship window probably lasts through 2016 with the roster as constructed right now. It's rather old and the only regular starters that won't be over thirty for 2017 are Neagle and Pappa. So this season you are starting to see more youth play again - GA draftee Cristian Roldan at center mid and right mid, HGP Aaron Kovar at left mid, and HGP Victor Mansaray at forward and left mid. Adrian, Garth and Sigi need to figure out how many of their under-25 players can be expected to play well in '16 & '17. They need to do that while still winning trophies now. Replacing Dempsey, Martins, Alonso and Marshall will be a huge challenge. Seattle has the money and the talent that should do it. It will be the third structural transition since their founding in 2009.
pdb: Throughout their MLS history, the Sounders have been one of the biggest successes in MLS overall, by almost any measure. This is a broad, vague question, but: given that all sports are cyclical, how sustainable is that? Or, a better way to put it might be, is Seattle built to always be in the elite tier of MLS, or is a down year at some point inevitable?
SaH: It's not. Seattle is going to suck eventually. It's not something the soccer fans in this area are used to, but with the design of MLS, sustained dynasties just don't last. DC fell apart. Chicago fell apart. Only LA has fallen from greatness and reacquired their glory. The good news is that what fuels the Sounders' success is Adrian Hanauer and he's a young owner. If his influence remains strong and they continue to find GMs and coaches of the quality of Garth Lagerwey and Sigi Schmid this not-quite-dynasty will last longer than others in the league.
pdb: The Sounders didn't so much rebuild last year's Supporters' Shield winners as fine-tune. Anybody either newly acquired from outside or coming up through the ranks that may have a big impact in 2015?
SaH: Tyrone Mears is the new starting right back replacing Yedlin. He isn't as fast, but his on-man defense is better. His passing is a bit more accurate. Overall his performances are more "normal" rather than wild swings between greatness and "oof." They added Troy Perkins for depth goalkeeping, which is an improvement. All other additions came through the draft and HGP signings. Roldan provides some creativity in the middle. Darwin Jones is a local forward with an Oba skillset. Mansaray is another local, he's more of a Dempsey without a left foot.
pdb: I ask this question in all my Q&A's, so here goes. Complete this sentence: For Portland to beat Seattle on Sunday, the Timbers absolutely must...
SaH: Stop at least one of Dempsey and Martins while finding a way to attack the Sounders on the ground, rather than through the air as they've done this season. Seattle is better in the air than Portland, even with Scott replacing Marshall. Porterball of old might work, but the 2015 longball- and cross-centric Timbers going up against Scott, Evans and maybe Rose will look like the Sounders are expert-level pinball players setting themselves up for their next successful attack.
Significant Absences: Chad Marshall
Predicted Lineup: Frei; Gonzalez, Scott, Evans, Mears; Neagle, Alonso, Pineda, Pappa; Dempsey, Martins
Remick could start for Gonzalez. Rose may be considered over Pineda.