What are the Portland Timbers? A bad mediocre team. Their 6-6-8 -1 record is 11th by Sagarin. What are the Seattle Sounders? A worse soccer team. They are 15th in Sagarin with a 6-10-2 -2 record. What is the Cascadia Cup? It is the greatest rivalry in American soccer. It is the type of rivalry where Fox, not FS1, FOX, sets a Noon Pacific start time so that the United States can enjoy Portland versus Seattle in a tiny little logging village in Oregon, the lesser state of Cascadia.
Will from Stumptown Footy answers Three Questions.
SaH: Portland seems to have transitioned into a counter-attacking team with a great target forward. How is that suiting the attacking mids, who are three of the better technical players in MLS?
STF: Well, if we go with Nagbe, Valeri, and Melano as the optimal attacking midfielders in question, then it suits them just fine. The thing about the Timbers' preferred style on the counter is that it rarely involves just lumping the ball down the field to Adi and hoping he can score. Rather, the Timbers like to get the ball downfield to Adi so that he can drop it off for one of his midfielders.
In an ideal world, this gives Adi the chance to push the opposition back line further down the field while the Timbers defense quickly gets the ball down the pitch, hopefully leaving the Sounders -- or whoever -- with players committed in the attacking end. This gives Nagbe space to carry the ball down the pitch, Valeri room to pick out a defense splitting pass, and Melano room to run fast, fall over, and occasionally do something wonderful.
Of course, when the opposition is not willing to push numbers down the pitch and the Timbers cannot catch them out, the counter attacking approach that has been the side's bread and butter since last year becomes a frustrating morass of ill-advised passes, uncalled fouls committed against Nagbe, and Diego Valeri probably picking up a yellow card for something avoidable. For a good example of how to do this with the Timbers on short rest, just check out the second half of Wednesday's match against the Montreal Impact.
SaH: How will veterans like Borders and Ridgewell deal with Jordan Morris speed coming from angles?
STF: Traditionally when faced with a speedy winger, Borchers and Ridgewell have employed an age-old formula to shut them down: good positioning, strong recovery runs from their fullbacks, and some timely interventions from Diego Chara.
If you were to ask the same question some ten weeks ago, the likely answer would have been something like, "they wouldn't", but now the Timbers' center backs -- with plenty of help from the crazy-good shot stopping of Jake Gleeson -- are getting shutouts, only rarely giving up the fluke goals that have troubled them early in the season each year since Caleb Porter took over, and generally looking like a group that won the MLS Cup only eight months ago.
Of course, in looking at this question it is important to keep in mind that Ridgewell was out for a good chunk of the season and that he and Borchers have only recently started to look like the same defensive pairing that carried the Timbers for long stretches of 2015.
SaH: Is there a non-Morris player from the Sounders that the Timbers should seek to acquire during the transfer window?
... Ok, let's try that again.
... One more time?
Up until Thursday the easy answer would have been Joevin Jones.
Left back has been far and away the Timbers' biggest roster issue this season. First, Chris Klute was brought in to fill the position, then Jermaine Taylor was brought in as emergency cover, and, finally, Jack Barmby was given a chance to earn the spot, despite being a more attacking player by trade.
None of them worked out particularly well and it was left to utility defender Zarek Valentin to fill in at his worst spot on the back line, at first putting in some "rough" performances, but eventually graduating to "fine".
Now, however, the Timbers have signed Lithuanian left back Vytas Andriuškevičius out of the Eredivise and surely the team's full back issues will be solved when he shows up in a couple weeks. But he will still be no Jorge Villafana.
Anyway. We'll take Cristian Roldan, whom many have lamented the Timbers passing on in order to take the as-of-yet-unspectacular Nick Besler with the No. 5 pick in the 2015 MLS Superdraft. This Roldan fellow does seem pretty good.
Projected Lineup: Gleeson; Valentin, Ridgewell, Borchers, Powell; Zemanski, Chara; Nagbe, Valeri, Melano; Adi
* * *
STF: Before Wednesday the Sounders were floundering, having scored less then a goal per game through the first half of the season. What happened to Seattle's once vaunted attack? Is it all about losing Obafemi Martins or do the issues run deeper than that?
SaH: First off, a lot of it has to do with losing and not replacing Oba. Losing an MVP caliber player dramatically effects a team, particularly when they aren't replaced with another sure-fire star. Just look at the 2015 New York Red Bulls and how BWP fell (to only 17 goals, but his '14 was even better). Now, Red Bull added Klejstan and Grella with Sam stepping up as well.
But Seattle did not lose just Oba with the only significant replacement being Jordan Morris (he's been good, but still is a rookie). Neagle, Barrett and Pappa were all sent off as well. The only non-Morris signing in the attack was Oalex Anderson, a young speedster from St. Vincent and the Grenadines who was with S2 last year. He's a decent sub, but not a scoring threat yet. They also added Herculez Gomez who is a strong on effort but long on finishing in the past several years.
On top of losing those four last year's late season additions in attack of Andreas Ivanschitz and Nelson Haedo Valdez are generally not performing well on the stat-line. Valdez is a strong complimentary target forward with great effort and ball-winning skill but is not a scorer. Ivanschitz serves a good long ball, but has not fit into the roles he's been asked to play (except against Dallas he did get a goal and assist).
In many ways the Sounders lost six players in their potent attack and replaced them with Jordan Morris. Should the attack be bad, no. It should have merely been average if Andreas and Nelson were also performing as they did late last year. Finally, Clint Dempsey is struggling in 2016. There were positional issues, that seem to be resolved, as well as trust issues with the offense around him. That may also be resolving but Portland won't need to worry about it.
STF: The offense was working fine on Wednesday, however, as the Sounders dismantled FC Dallas's reserves to the tune of 5-0. Could that result be a turning point for Seattle? What worked in that match that Sounders fans had not otherwise seen this season?
SaH: It's quite easy to feel great about that kind of drubbing. But it's also a bit of a mirage. Going up a man just four minutes into a game changes quite a bit. Yes, it was leveled at ten-a-side in the 33rd minute, but by then the Sounders were up 3-0. Operating with so much space Seattle took advantage and scored twice more.
The main thing that can be taken away from that is not the scoreline, but that the Sounders were not satisfied scoring a couple and riding out an easy win. They wanted to dominate, as they knew they should, and they dominated. Prior to the game if you told me that the Sounders would earn a 4th minute penalty and play up for those 29 minutes I would have expected a something like 2-1, or maybe 2-2.
What Wednesday night did was cleanse those kinds of thoughts from the minds of the players and fans, if only for one night.
STF: Osvaldo Alonso has played all but 28 minutes of the Sounders' season to date, which is about par for the course when it comes to the aggressive defensive midfielder. Still, after an offseason filled with rumors of his impending departure, how is Alonso playing this season? And what role has he had in the Sounders' struggles so far?
SaH: Alonso is nearly back to the form that earned him a Best XI nod in 2012 and four straight All Star selections from '11 to '14. Unlike 2015 his speed and anticipation in defense look spritely. Balls near his area are intercepted, balls that aren't near his area are suddenly in his area. He's still a hard tackler who does not get beat by dribbling.
What's really standing out this year is his passing. He may be the best long-ball player in MLS right now. His success on long balls is 80% on nearly 10 attempts a game. Most often those are switches out to a fullback flaring up the opposite side of the field, but as he showed Wednesday night he can also pick out a running attacking player.
If the Sounders attack wasn't so broken, thereby being in a respectable position in the standings, Ozzie would be getting praise for leading one of the best defenses in the league while also being a deep-lying playmaker. This may be the second best he's been. But the offense does suck and no one is going to be praising a Sounder until the team looks better.
Lineup prediction: Frei; Jo.Jones, Marshall, Evans, Mears; Ivanschitz, Alonso, Friberg, Roldan; Valdez, Morris