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Sounders vs. Portland Timbers US Open Cup: Three Questions

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Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

While the Portland Timbers didn't get the luck of the draw and are forced on the road to face an MLS team in their opening round of US Open Cup action, they do have the benefit of a bye week prior to facing Seattle Sounders FC. Sigi Schmid does not have that advantage. His lineup will be affected with the loss of Alonso, questionable status of Gonzalo Pineda, Chad Barrett and a roster that depends on internationals (the US Open Cup only allows five in the 18).

This isn't the regular season. It is win-or-go-home. Seattle holds four US Open Cups in their short history. Winning the whole darn thing would tie them with Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles on the all-time list. Portland will attempt to stand together and prevent that history.

Their history on the road in this tournament is less glorious than Seattle's history on the road.

William from StumptownFooty answers Three Questions

SaH: With the weekend off is Porter going put out his strongest XI in order to take down Seattle?

STF: Is Caleb Porter going to put out his strongest XI? Yes. What his strongest XI will be, however, is the subject of some debate. The Timbers back line has been one of the most stable -- and most successful -- in the league so far and will almost certainly go unchanged against the Sounders. Outside of the back five, however, the Timbers are a team in flux.

Will Johnson may just have gotten his first first-team minutes of the year, but already he is away with the Canadian Men's National Team. Diego Valeri, meanwhile, returned to the starting XI, promptly racked up a goal and an assist in three games, then rolled his ankle and has been out since. Even newcomer Dairon Asprilla, who forced his way into the starting XI in Valeri's absence, has gone down with a rolled ankle of his own. All of these absences have come together to force the Timbers into some creativity with their lineups.

SaH: The Timbers are having one of their best road seasons ever. What's been their key to success away from Providence Park?

STF: Late in 2013 teams figured out the best way to shut down the Timbers' preferred method of play: pack in the defense, crowd the midfield, and attack on the counter. Two years later that remains the case, so when the Timbers go on the road they often find themselves coming up against teams that are more willing to open up the game and go on the attack rather than sitting back and waiting for the Timbers to leave an opening, a strategy that plays into the Timbers' strengths.

At Providence Park teams have no compunctions about packing it in and making the Timbers break them down, employing the same strategy that has frustrated the Timbers and their fans so much over the last two years.

SaH: Why do Portland fans and players hate Starfire so much?

STF: You mean other than the fact that the Sounders always win there? How about because the away fans are set up on a little knoll in the corner of the pitch that does not have any sight lines to the scoreboard or even a whole corner of the pitch? Or that an entire side of the stadium is forced to walk back and forth in front of the Timbers Army section each time they go for a beer, almost always resulting in some guy getting tossed for trying to come over the fence following some *good-natured* heckling?

In the end, the only answer can be that Portland fans and players hate Starfire because Seattle fans and players like it. It is a rivalry; what more do you need?

Projected Lineup: Kwarasey; Villafana, Ridgewell, Borchers, Powell; Jewsbury, Fochive; Wallace, Fernandez, Nagbe; Urruti

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STF: The Sounders are coming off a 3-0 win on Saturday against FC Dallas that was missing Brad Evans, Obafemi Martins and Osvaldo Alonso from the starting XI; what sort of lineup should Timbers fans expect to see from them on Tuesday?

SaH: It's going to be a mix of the regular XI and some rotational players. Sounders FC avoided cup-tying most of their reserves, but it might not matter with the draw going the way it did. It seems more likely that the depth players will get their run in the next round, against a team less likely to field their own ideal XI. Of those three starters that didn't start, Martins is the least likely to be in the 18 on Tuesday night. He's an international and he's still recovering from a broken nose and surgery. I can't think of a match more likely to re-injure that nose than one at Starfire against Portland. Alonso didn't play at all, but that's due to a hamstring issue. Evans went 45 minutes, and is working back to fitness/timezone issues after he beat Germany.

Zach Scott is certain to play, because it's Portland.

STF: How did the Sounders manage to go from the worst defense of any team to make the playoffs in 2014 to the best defense in the league in 2015? And how did they keep their league-leading attack intact in the process?

SaH: If you look at tempo-neutral stats, Seattle's defense was really good in 2014. It appears awful because their run-and-gun attack just gave other teams so many more opportunities. Now, as a possession team that also improved their defense by moving Evans into CB, the tempo mask is removed and the true quality of three-time defensive player of the year with premier defensive mid Alonso shows. When Seattle wins the ball, they will initially look for a quick strike into the final third and the feet of Clint/Obafemi. If that isn't available they use central third possession. This prevents other teams from attacking and allows the Sounders to find sequences that emulate counters from their own possession. It also maximizes the chance that they are in their preferred defensive shape. Strong shape, slow tactics and four defensive players (in order Frei, Evans, Marshall, Alonso) who have a shot at the Best XI makes a defense that's hard to break.

STF: What is it about Starfire that the Sounders like so much? How much of their success in the U.S. Open Cup can be attributed to playing there regularly?

SaH: From the early days of the MLS Sounders they were built to win the ball in the air and strike quickly. With the small pitch of Starfire Stadium, that type of roster is perfect. The close proximity of the crowd and a roof over the main stands help with homefield advantage from noise. Then you add in the undefeated record from late 2008 until just last week with S2 and there is a mysticism. That mighty Fortress Starfire helps, but for all benefits of hosting there Seattle won two Finals on the road and two at CenturyLink Field, twice beat Portland in Portland, beat San Jose in the Battle of Kezar. Only 2011 was a title won purely at home. And yes, 2013 sucked when they lost to Tampa Bay Rowdies in Tampa. Other teams have had similar opportunities, and lose at home.

Lineup prediction: Perkins; Gonzalez, Scott, Evans, Fisher; Kovar, Azira, Rose, Roldan; Neagle, Dempsey

This is a wild ass guess based on the assumption that Portland is going to run really close to their Best XI and that Sigi isn't willing to count on rookies (Thomas, Jones, Mansary) to provide offense against the Timbers.