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Sounders vs Portland Timbers: Three Questions

The Cascadia Cup contest lost the luster of the preseason, but still has all the grit and fire of the biggest rivalry in American soccer. Let’s prepare for bonfire season.

Caleb Porter and Brad Evans argue at halftime. Photo Credit - MikeRussellFoto

When the schedule came out the match between the MLS Cup Champion Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders was expected to be a battle for a top seed in the West and maybe even the Supporters’ Shield. Instead it is a struggle between the 6th seed and the 9th as both Cascadia teams try to rescue their seasons. Portland is 0-6-6 away from the glass house. Seattle is only 6-5-1 at the CLink. The Timbers lead this year’s Cascadia Cup standings with 6 points in 3 matches played. Sounders FC only played twice against their regional rivals, earning zero points.

FoxSports1 has the 6:30 PM broadcast.

Will from Stumptown Footy answers Three Questions about the team from Oregon.

SaH: Without Borchers the Timbers' defense is struggling a bit. How will the replacements fare against Morris and Dempsey?

STF: "Yes, and..." might be the rule of thumb in this sort of thing, but I am going to start this off by rejecting your premise outright: the Timbers' defense was largely struggling even with Nat Borchers healthy. The loss of a consistent starter hurts, as any team in any league can tell you, but for the Timbers the loss of Borchers to a ruptured Achilles tendon is just another in a long series of injuries this season that have led to a complete lack of cohesion along the back line and on defense in general.

Some of the highlights: regular injuries to Liam Ridgewell, regular injuries to Alvas Powell, regular injuries and suspensions to Diego Chara, Chris Klute's arrival in camp injured and consistent inability to stay healthy since, injuries to Zarek Valentin, injuries and international call-ups to Darlington Nagbe, injuries to Ben Zemanski, injuries to Jack Jewsbury, etc.

Anyway, every team has to deal with injuries; the Timbers have just had to deal with a lot of injuries this season and as a result the team has never quite been able to replicate the stout defensive form that carried them to the MLS Cup last year.

Of course, the Timbers have brought in some defensive reinforcements: left back Vytautas Andriuškevičius (just call him Vytas), and center backs Steven Taylor and Gbenga Arokoyo were all added over the summer transfer window. Of that list only Vytas has made an appearance with the first team, starting the Timbers' last two matches, while more recent arrivals Taylor and Arokoyo are still being worked into the side after coming off their respective offseasons. At this point, Vytas is pretty much a lock at left back and Taylor is a possibility for the first team after getting two starts with T2, although throwing him into such an important match when his fitness still seems very much in question would be a risky move. Gbenga, who just arrived in Portland earlier this week, will not be a factor in this one.

One player who will undoubtedly be a factor for the Timbers' defensive efforts is Diego Chara as he makes his return from a red card suspension given for living the dream and slapping Benny Feilhaber. While the Timbers are definitely still trying to piece together a back line that can carry them through the rest of the season, Chara's defensive efforts have remained consistent and the side will be much more comfortable with him on the pitch.

SaH: Portland's next game is against the Sounders, again. Will that effect how often/hard the fouls come?

STF: So, the implication in this vague question is that you think the Timbers will be trying to injure the Sounders, because they are playing against next weekend?

Probably not.

Looking at the Timbers' fouling record overall, the side is completely average in the number of fouls conceded per game, giving up the 10th most in the league.

Where the Timbers do stand out in their fouling is how those fouls are concentrated: Diego Chara and Fanendo Adi are the top two players in MLS in fouls conceded with 62 and 54, respectively. (Adi is tied at 54 with Dom Dwyer and Matias Laba, but has played fewer minutes than either.)

Chara's spot on the list should come as no surprise; his modus operandi is to commit tactical fouls and break up opposition attacks when he is not in a position to win the ball cleanly. And although Chara has earned a reputation as a player prone to fouling, his ratio of fouls to yellow cards is significantly higher than other defensive midfielders in the league, belying any talk of his being a reckless or malicious fouler.

The number of fouls given up by Adi, however, is much more concerning for Timbers fans as the big man seems to come out on the losing end of the referee's whistle every match when bodying up defenders. In the Timbers' current scheme, Adi is tasked with being the side's outlet as they look to break out and hit the opposition on the counter. However, when he is regularly giving up fouls, it neuters Adi's ability to hold his man off and in turn his ability to be an effective hold up man for the Timbers.

Many defenders, it seems, have pinpointed this as the weakness of the Timbers' big man and have made the most of referees' willingness to call things on Adi up top. As a result, Adi has seemed frustrated at times this season and has seemingly done little to advance his cause with the referees, rarely getting the benefit of the doubt and even losing out on what have seemed like "stone-cold"* penalties.

Of course, the Timbers have suffered their fair share of fouls as well, being on the receiving end of the fifth most fouls per game in MLS. Whats more, the Timbers have been on the receiving end of a staggering four fouls that have merited retroactive suspensions from the disciplinary committee this year, more than any other team in the league.

*copyright Simon Borg

SaH: What's going on with the road struggles?

STF: At the risk of repeating my answer from question No. 1, it all comes down to the defense. In 2015, the Timbers were a force to be reckoned with on the road, going 7-8-2 away from the confines of Providence Park and notching the second best away record in the league.

In 2016, however, the Timbers have gone a whopping 0-6-6 on the road, leaving them among the league's worst sides away from home.

The big difference from one year to the next, then, is the Timbers' current lack of a coherent defensive group. In 2015, the Timbers were able to go on the road, lock the game down, and be confident that they could keep their opposition from getting on the board. This year the Timbers have had no such security.

You can find an excellent break down of this issue from Chris Rifer in this week's episode of Soccer Made in PDX.

With no consistency and thus no solidity in their defensive efforts, the Timbers have been prone to shipping early goals and giving up the lead to their opponents: a game state that has not been kind to a team that is built around the idea of staying strong defensively, welcoming on the opposition, and grabbing a goal or three via their quick, decisive counters.

Projected lineup: Gleeson; Vytas, Ridgewell, Taylor, Powell; Chara, Jewsbury; Melano, Valeri, Nagbe; Adi

The Timbers could also continue with the 4-4-2 that they have at least nominally run out in their last two matches, bringing in Jack McInerney up top alongside Adi and sending Melano back to the bench. Also, that Taylor on the back line could be either Steven or Jermaine Taylor, with Steven Taylor possibly still working his way up to fitness and recent starter Jermaine Taylor enduring a questionable run of form on the back line.

STF: On a scale of 1-100, how sure are you that Lodeiro is the real deal? What has made him such an instantly impactful player for the Sounders and will he be able to keep up his current breakneck pace?

SaH: 74

Sure, he's burst onto the stage with an impressive goal, three assists, and 11 key passes coming from a mix of crosses, long balls and throughballs. But these aren't skills that he hasn't displayed before. He is currently the creative force for Uruguay, who though they had a bad Copa America, are still one of the world's top national teams. With Boca Juniors he was similarly high-quality as well.

Other players with his skills have done this before - Valeri being a prime example, GBS with the Crew being another. Like Diego, Nico comes before the age of 30. His signing isn't completely unseen territory, nor is his performance.

What is a bit different is that he's carrying the load for a resurgent team that is trying to crash into the playoffs. That's something more like what Jermaine Jones did with the Revs, or Drogba did with the Impact.

Will Lodeiro finish with 3 or 4 goals and 14 assists? Probably not, but if he does you could make a case for him finishing in the MVP hunt, because that would be enough to power Clint and Jordan towards double-digit goal scoring years and a playoff berth for the eighth straight season. Teams will adjust to him. He'll get tired during the travel that is more similar to the Copa Libertadores than a league. But, he's young and he has managed to perform well in continental tournaments in the past.

STF: The Sounders have one of the league's worst home records so far in 2016, which is pretty surprising from an outside perspective. What is behind the Sounders' struggles at CenturyLink and should we have seen this coming?

SaH: It isn't about the Sounders struggling at home. It's about them being a bad team. They have the eighth worst home record on the season and some of that is boosted by their last three games in the Emerald City (5-0 win, 1-1 draw and 2-1 win). But they also have the eighth worst road record.

Lots of small things happened in many games where the breaks just didn't go Seattle's way. They were probably just an average MLS side with horrible luck until seven games ago. Now, they look like a good team that's getting some breaks. Maybe that's the way of sports where better teams also get better luck. But the change is clear, luck is again on Seattle's side.

There's also the same issue that Portland has at home - referee overcompensation for crowd noise/influence. This year's penalties against versus penalties for is bizarre, a familiar territory for a Timbers fan. Maybe that's our shared curse due to the size and vibrancy of the crowds.

STF: This will be the Sounders' first Sigi-less Cascadia Cup match of the MLS era, so what has changed since Schmetzer took over? Is it just the arrival of Lodeiro, or have their been other changes to the Sounders since earlier this season that Timbers fans should be looking out for?

SaH: The lineup is barely tweaked, with the only addition being Lodeiro. The other recent signing, Alvaro Fernandez, has merely seven minutes played. The formation isn't that different either. It's still nominally a 4-2-3-1 with Clint in the hole behind Morris so they look like a two forward set quite often. This is especially true as either Lodeiro or Ivanchitz slip into the middle to become a central creator.

The difference with Brian Schmetzer is about expectation and attitude. This shows up a few ways. He regularly tells the players that this is their team. It does not and will not succeed because of him, but because of their efforts and abilities. That lays the blame and credit right at the feet of World Cup veterans, regular National Teamers and players that won several trophies while Sounders. He also expects them to not just know their own role on the squad, but what their partner (each roster spot has a pairing such as TF-WF or RW-RB) and even the full force is doing. When you notice your partner doing X there is an expectation that not only do you react, but that the whole team reacts. This is not necessarily new, but the method of communication is different. Players seem to be listening now.

Part of that may be due to the wake-up call of seeing the founding coach of the MLS version of the Sounders sent away. Now, at the back of everyone's mind is a simple thought "if they were willing to do that to Sigi, what will they do with me?" A few veterans whose efforts were doubted near the end of the Sigi era are back to their level of performance that earned Seattle the expectation of being a trophy winner. It may be too late, but at least the run-in should be enjoyable.

Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, Tyrone Mears; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristan Roldan; Andreas Ivanschitz, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Jordan Morris

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