Fresh off a tight 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake last weekend, the Seattle Sounders are preparing to face their biggest rivals for the first time of the 2017 season this weekend. The Portland Timbers will come to town on Saturday hoping to make a statement against the reigning MLS Cup champs, who haven’t had the best season thus far. Between the rivalry aspect of the match and the need to get the season back on track, Brian Schmetzer said that his team is more than ready. “I know the guys are going to be up for it, for sure,” he said. “They will be up for that match.”
The Sounders only prevailed in one of the three meetings between the two clubs in 2016, but the one in which they did turned out to be one of the catalysts to their epic late-season Cup run. The 3-1 victory at CenturyLink Field was the third win in a row for the Sounders, helping them to a 3-0-2 record in the first five matches after Schmetzer took charge of the club. “That was the start of a good stretch for us,” Schmetzer said on Tuesday. “It was one of those critical games where we started on the trajectory to winning some games.”
With the Sounders going through a particularly rough patch in 2017, could another match against Portland be the spark that they need? Goalkeeper Stefan Frei thinks that, aside from the emotions and rivalry aspect, this is just another home match in which the Sounders absolutely can’t afford to drop points. “Our home games we have to win, doesn’t matter how ugly it’s gonna be. Last game wasn’t the prettiest, but they all count the same.” Midfielder Cristian Roldan said the morale of the team was up after the win against RSL, and this weekend is just another opportunity to get a streak going. “I think the most important thing is to build on it, to continue to play well and defend well and get our chances and make them.”
Schmetzer noted that Clint Dempsey was particularly up for that match, scoring two goals in a very strong performance. “Dempsey scored a couple goals, I think he likes playing against them,” Schmetzer said. He pointed out that when players like Dempsey get fired up in these rivalry matches, it adds a little more of an edge to it—hopefully in a positive way. Frei said his goal is to help his teammates stay in control. “You still have to keep your emotions in check, and make sure you don’t do anything stupid that will cost your team by getting you ejected or causing a PK or a silly free kick for that matter.” He said that he’ll be trying to “convey a calm throughout the team to make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Not that these rivalry matches needed to add anything to make them interesting, but the two teams’ championship situation certainly helps. Last year, the Timbers rode into town with the smug satisfaction that they had that star above their jersey and the Sounders didn’t. But this time, the roles are reversed. “When they won the year before, I felt like it was a chance for us to take it upon ourselves to not come off the worst,” said Frei. The Sounders know that the Timbers, like many MLS teams, have their sights trained on the champions, but Frei thinks that this forces them to raise their game. “It certainly adds something, and I think it’s a good thing.”
As for the match itself, the Sounders will have their hands full with one of the most potent attacks in all of Major League Soccer. The Timbers started the season extremely well, though their form has certainly dropped in recent weeks. Schmetzer said that team defense is his priority; he wants his team to defend well as a unit against Portland’s dangerous counterattack and give Seattle’s attack as many chances as possible at the other side.
One unexpected boost for Seattle going into the weekend is that Portland will be without notorious midfield enforcer Diego Chara, who is suspended after seeing red last weekend in Montreal. Roldan said the absence of Chara will be painful for the Timbers, as he’s become a pretty key member of their squad. “I think he’s good for their team, he’s a very good player, sits in front of Guzman very well. Almost plays like a number 8 now.” Roldan pointed out that there will likely be lots of space in Portland’s midfield without Chara, and exploiting that will be absolutely key in dominating the center of the pitch. “Whenever we’re able to bypass the midfield and get that pass right, it stretches out the field quite a bit and space is opened up.”
Schmetzer’s status as a local legend in Seattle means these games also have a bit extra for him. Though now that he’s the head coach, he keeps things mostly diplomatic. He praised Timbers coach Caleb Porter and his team and said he looks forward to the many battles they’ll have in the future. He even gave the Timbers Army a bit of a compliment. “I might not agree with all the things they say or do or individuals within that group, they certainly do have a passion for their team and I respect that.” But there is one aspect of the Timbers and their culture that he’s happy to show his disdain for: team mascot Timber Jim (and his successor, Timber Joey). “Timber Jim? I don’t like it, I can say that.”