It’s no surprise (or secret) that games against the Portland Timbers have an extra edge for the Seattle Sounders. The rivalry has been documented and praised all over the world, sometimes taking on more hype than the matches themselves probably deserve. Their only meeting thus far in 2016 was an emphatic 3-1 win for Portland last month, but as the rivalry gets set for its second and third matches of the season, within the next week, there’s more at stake than just pride.
The margin between the Sounders and the Timbers (and the playoff spots) is razor-thin, and could only get thinner if the Sounders get three points on Sunday. Head coach Brian Schmetzer, whose time with the Sounders goes all the way back to 1980 and his playing days, admits that while there’s a little something extra in these “tremendous” rivalry games — his priority is getting three points and dragging his team up the Western Conference standings. “Our playoff existence depends on winning games, I don’t necessarily care who the opponent is.”
Schmetzer also credits his team with having the drive and motivation in training this week, saying that “the team has been playing well and I’m not so sure that I have to do any extra motivation, it’s already there because of the situation we find ourselves in.”
Thanks to good results in the past three matches and an overall positive vibe around the training ground, the players seem to know how vital it is to get focused on winning the points rather than letting the emotions cloud their judgment. Captain Brad Evans said that “the last thing we want to do is go into the bye week with a bitter taste in our mouths...we know what’s at stake.” He was also clear in what he sees as the most vital thing that the Sounders must do in this match—finish their chances.
In their July thrashing in Portland, the Sounders had a number of opportunities to change the game that were wasted. “It’s not like we didn’t create chances in that game, we didn’t finish our chances and they kept pushing,” Evans said. It’ll certainly help that they finally have a solid chance creator in Nicolas Lodeiro, who consistently puts his teammates in much better situations to score.
But the defending was also suspect in that match in Portland, and the Timbers’ counterattack repeatedly burned the Sounders in that loss. Schmetzer said that preparing for that involved watching film of the previous match, “making sure everybody knows where they need to be in case it breaks down,” and then drilling that over and over in training until they’ve got it right. He said that, as the coach, he takes responsibility if the players get caught in a similar situation on Sunday. Schmetzer said “we’ll just work on making sure we don’t get caught in various areas, and make sure that they actually have to deal with us.”
Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei noted the dangerous qualities of Timbers striker Fanendo Adi: “I think Adi is one of the better target strikers in the league, he can hold up the ball, he can head the ball, he can run, he can score on his own, he’s got a cannon, and obviously the service he gets from the guys behind him like Valeri is very good as well.” Schmetzer also noted Adi, calling him a “handful,” while also praising the counterattacking prowess of Diego Valeri and Lucas Melano. He also noted Darlington Nagbe, who he says he’s watched since the player’s time at Akron University: “when he gets the ball and is able to run at you, very dangerous.” When comparing Nagbe to Lodeiro, Schmetzer said while both are great with the ball at their feet, he sees Lodeiro as having better vision and foresight for creating chances and finding impossible angles to get the ball to his teammates.
On the other side, Timbers head coach Caleb Porter recognized that the Sounders are “a different team now” with the addition of Lodeiro and the availability of Dempsey. He said that he feels confident in his attackers in this match, because he expects Seattle to field a very similar back line to the one that played in July. Porter also says that it will be “strange” not to see Sigi Schmid on the bench for the Sounders, but he isn’t giving in to the idea that it will be too much different with Schmetzer leading the team out. “I remind people, Schmetzer was on the bench for every single one of those games as well and Schmetzer has been Sigi's right hand man for the last seven-and-a-half years.”
Porter, like Schmetzer, also emphasized that his main priority is getting points and pushing for a playoff spot. Even though the teams have found themselves in similar positions heading into this match in the past, Porter said that he thinks this match will be particularly “interesting, especially considering where both clubs are at right now...both clubs need points at this crucial stage in the season.”