As the Seattle Sounders look to the weekend’s big Cascadia matchup with the Portland Timbers, they’ve finally had a bit of a breather after a congested schedule the last few weeks. Their win over Real Salt Lake last weekend helped soften the blow of the away losses they had taken from their previous two matches, but preparation for the Timbers goes beyond the morale boost that the win provided. The Sounders have been doing all they can to prepare for the various threats that the Timbers provide, as well as the realization that a lot of the stuff they prepare for can go out the window in these matches.
Three points against RSL
Even though the first couple months of the season weren’t exactly ideal for Seattle, it wasn’t the end of the world. Had a few things gone their way in a couple of those matches, they’d have been near the top of the table in May rather than near the bottom. But the heavy defeats to the Chicago Fire and Sporting KC were an absolute gut punch that seemed to shock players and fans alike. Defender Brad Evans said that it was a particularly hard time for the players after those two losses—but it inspired them to work hard for three points at home the following weekend. “We’re looking up at the standings and one or two games can make a big difference at this part of the season.”
Midfielder Harry Shipp remarked that “especially after the week we had last week, it was a pretty low week with those two results on the road.” He said a loss or even a draw against RSL last weekend would have been even more devastating for morale, especially because it was at home. The result would have weighed on the Sounders’ shoulders all week, and training would have taken on a far less jovial tone than it had this week.
Shipp doesn’t even think it was the best of results, that the Sounders should have done much better with a number of their scoring chances. But even if the only goal of the game was his own deflected shot, it marked a dramatic change for the team that carried into this week. Shipp was proud of how organized the team was in the second half to earn a clean sheet, “which is a good thing going into a game against a Portland team that’s going to be dangerous up top.”
All about Adi
Speaking of Portland being dangerous up top: forward Fanendo Adi came up with multiple players this week as they spoke about Saturday’s match. Evans said Adi is probably the best forward in the “physically imposing” category in the league, particularly because he’s not just a big body to throw into the box. “I think Adi is up there with the best in terms of production,” Evans said, “not only does he have the size but he uses it well and can also finish with his feet.”
Defender Gustav Svensson said his particular strategy for dealing with a guy like Adi is to keep the ball away from him as much as possible, and restrict the space he has to work with when he does have the ball. “We just have to be prepared to know that there are going to be a lot of balls around him and to just be prepared for what’s going to happen around him.” Evans affirmed his fellow defenders and the team’s desire to keep the ball out of their own net and in their opponents’ as much as possible. “They’ll be up for the battle, after the drubbing they gave us down there last year.”
Atmosphere affects some more than others
As is the common theme when talking about Sounders-Timbers, the atmosphere at CenturyLink Field on Saturday is likely to be electric—even if what’s happening on the field doesn’t exactly reflect that.
Evans, who has played in many of these matches, claimed there’s a “buzz in the air” on match day that the players often feed off when the fans get there early and get into the festivities. “We respect them for their efforts in these games where they come out early and provide that extra buzz,” Evans said. For rivalry games that might be evenly matched on the pitch, he thinks the atmosphere helps give them the edge they need to overcome their opponents.
That extra edge can help, Evans said, because form and preparation are often thrown “out the window” in these intense rivalry matches. Even if one team is in first place and the other is in last place, Evans believes either team can come out on top on the day. He said the way to counter that is to “stay focused on our game plan,” because “the occasion is set for a big game, all the rivalry games are.”
Forward Jordan Morris, who played in three of these matches in his rookie season last year, agrees that the intensity is obvious amongst the fans, but he doesn’t think it changes much of what happens on the pitch. “Once you get onto the field, it’s just like any other game and you just go out there and play like we’ve been working on and do what we want to do and get out of there with three points.”
Shipp, on the other hand, has yet to experience this matchup firsthand. Having only played at Chicago and Montreal in his MLS career, he hasn’t really even experienced a top class rivalry match as a player. But he expects a raucous crowd and an intense atmosphere on Saturday. “It’s the kinda games you play for, it’s the reason why you’re a professional soccer player, I think.”
One thing that Sounders fans and players alike will take to heart on Saturday is that the Timbers and their fans can’t really claim superiority now that both teams are MLS Cup champions. The Sounders even have the edge of being the current champions and can rub that, for whatever it’s worth, in the faces of their opponents. Evans said that it’s a relief to go into this match as reigning champs after having to hear all about Portland’s win last year. Though he wishes the Sounders had won it first, he echoed Clint Dempsey’s infamous post-Cup proclamation about the Timbers: “now they can’t say shit.”
The streak starts here
Regardless of how each player is affected by the fans and the atmosphere on Saturday, it’s objectively true that dropping points at home is unacceptable for the Sounders no matter their opponent. If they want to get their season on track and prove that their win over RSL wasn’t a fluke, they must dominate Portland and send them packing down I-5 with nary a point. “We’ve gotta focus on an upward trajectory right now,” Evans said. “It starts with a rivalry game, there’s no better time.”