The last two MLS Cup champions meet on FOX at noon pacific on Saturday May 27. It makes sense that this is an over-the-air broadcast with a huge lead-in from the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Arsenal. American soccer fans who aren’t MLS fans have at least heard of this rivalry. Unfortunately neither team is good, right now. The Portland Timbers are 5th/10th with 18 points in 12 games. Seattle Sounders FC are even worse at 8th/18th with 13 points in their 12 matches played.
A little luster has worn off the stars above the two teams’ logos. No luster has worn off this rivalry. Despite the midday start on the Saturday of a three-day weekend CenturyLink Field could get 50,000 passionate People of the Sound in the stands. It will be louder than love and deeper than hate. Both organizations can look at this game as a way to reboot seasons that aren’t going properly, yet.
William from Stumptown Footy answers Three Questions. We both agreed that noon start times are bad.
SaH: How will Portland deal with the loss of Chara for this match?
STF: Poorly, most likely.
Chara is a player whose impact on a match can be difficult to pin down. His midfield fouls and dramatic last second interventions are easy to pick out, but his game is so much more than that. With David Guzman sitting in behind him and Diego Valeri in front, Chara is the team's facilitator, popping up to help out everywhere on the pitch.
Full back caught down the field and your winger is in a one on one defensive situation? Nope. Chara is there.
Diego Valeri turning to break down the pitch after a defensive corner kick, but Fanendo Adi was the one to head the ball clear? Nope. Chara is running with him.
Darlington Nagbe is caught in a loop, dribbling in circles in the middle of the pitch? Nope. Chara is there for a one-two pass to free him up.
So the Timbers are losing all of that on Saturday. In return they will likely get the debut of Lawrence Olum as a midfield starter. Olum has been around the block in MLS and Sounders fans will likely remember him from his reasonably productive time with Sporting Kansas City, filling in whenever Roger Espinonza was hurt or away on national team duty (half of every year, basically). Olum is a seasoned veteran with more of an out and out defensive bent than Chara; something that should make him easy to work into the Timbers midfield alongside Guzman.
The change gives the Timbers a decidedly defensive look in the midfield set up and could mean more attacking freedom for Guzman, but will more likely mean that he will be tasked with marking a certain Uruguayan playmaker out of the game.
SaH: The Timbers signed former Sounders target Blanco. How has he fit into the attack?
STF: Sebastian Blanco has been a competent player for the Timbers, but he has hardly lit the league on fire since joining the side over the offseason. Now with a goal and two assists to his name, Blanco's role in the Timbers' attack remains somewhat undefined.
Slotted in to the right attacking midfield berth in the Timbers' XI, Blanco enjoys the same sort of free-floating, shuttling, inverted winger role that Nagbe does on the left and the pair both tend to drift inside and look to combine with Adi and Valeri, while looking to their full backs to provide the team with some width.
For Blanco, that combination play has been hard to come by as he continues to develop his understanding with the rest of the Timbers attack. There have certainly been flashes that show just what he can do, but putting it all together has been inconsistent at best.
Still, the thing that keeps Timbers fans from pining for the days of speedster Lucas Melano is Blanco's commitment to playing defense. Rather than abandoning Alvas Powell to fend for himself against MLS's parade of quality left wingers, Blanco actually tends to show up on defense and chip in. Usually that is a good thing, although he is certainly not perfect as he showed last weekend, giving up the penalty that lead to the Montreal Impact's first goal.
SaH: Which member of the backline needs to improve and keep the defense stable until the next window when Portland adds a new CB?
STF: All of them.
Looking down the line, the player who seems least culpable in the Timbers' less than stellar back line this season seems to be Vytas, but the Lithuanian might just be getting a pass because he missed a good chunk of the start of the season.
Looking at the rest of the back line, however, there is plenty of blame to go around and plenty of improvements to be made.
Probably the Timbers best out and out defender this season has been new arrival Roy Miller. A strong defensive presence, good in the air, and able to compensate for his partner's style of play, Miller has been a strong pick up for the Timbers. Of course, that is really just when he is playing at left center back. When moved over to the right, Miller's weaknesses quickly become apparent; spacing, tackling, and especially passing all suffer when Miller is forced to his disfavored side of the pitch.
The Timbers' captain, Liam Ridgewell, remains the team's best overall player along the back line at left center back, but after an early season injury of his own, Ridgewell has yet to settle into a groove. This can definitely be seen in his passing out of the back, a strength of Ridgewell's but one marked this season by the occasional ball directly to a player for the opposing team.
And finally, Powell. Powell has had a remarkably inconsistent year in 2017, a statement that is not notable in itself, but this year the bad has seemed to outweigh the good. While he remains a ground-covering machine, Powell's side has been exploited by the Timbers' opposition in just about every match this season with good effect. There is one positive that we can take away from Powell's play so far this season: he has already notched three assists on the year -- a career high and in part due to the influence of Blanco on his flank.
All four players across the Timbers' back line will need to iron things out in short order if the Timbers are going to remain anywhere near the top of the pack this year and with reinforcements not forthcoming until July at the earliest they need to step up sooner rather than later.
Projected Lineup: Jake Gleeson; Alvas Powell, Roy Miller. Liam Ridgewell, Vytas; David Guzman, Lawrence Olum; Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco; Fanendo Adi
STF: The Sounders have been forced to mix it up this year as they deal with injuries, salary cap issues, and a sophomore slump from 2016's Newcomer of the Year, Nicolas Lodeiro. Now, a third of the way into the season, how are the Sounders coping and who should Timbers fans be looking out for this Saturday?
SaH: You'll get a respite in the backup attack. Will Bruin is out with a dislocated elbow. Henry Wingo, the HGP, is out with an ankle injury. That leaves the depth in the attack to Alvaro Fernandez, Aaron Kovar and Seyi Adekoya. Harry Shipp is starting again. Shipp's reputation as a slow, no-defense player should be ignored. He is suitable helping Alonso-Roldan, has good vision and is trying to find ways to contribute to an attack when he doesn't have the ball.
But injuries and a midweek game coming up may force those depth players to get time. Fernandez is not the attacking talent that Timbers fans remember from 2011. He is more like a defensive midfielder with a decent dribble. His passing is now conventional and he rarely threatens goal. Kovar has yet to make the 18 due to injury. He offers a bit of speed and a great long ball, but isn't a threat on goal. Seyi Adeokoya is a rookie HGP with good to great speed who was a strong finisher at UCLA two years ago, but has not finished well in many months.
If I was the Timbers I might try to absorb the attack for the first 60 and force Brian Schmetzer to use his attacking depth as Shipp-Morris-Dempsey wear down (Lodeiro will not wear down). That would be the way to steal a win against a Sounders team that is closer to healthy than its been since Dempsey's heart forced him to sit last August.
STF: Ok, so Lodeiro might not be setting MLS on fire like he did after arriving last year, but with three goals and four assists through twelve games he is clearly still central to the Sounders attack. What are the expectations for Lodeiro this year among Sounders fans and what factors might have slowed him down this year?
SaH: The primary concern among fans is whether Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro can work together. Their first four games, way back in August 2016, were extraordinary. A few things happened since then - Dempsey's heart condition, a miracle run into the the Playoffs, an MLS Cup win, Dempsey's return. Some of that concern makes sense. They are the two best attacking players on a team that expects to compete for trophies every year. They combine for only eight goals and five assists.
Both are capable of more. Dempsey's last two healthy years were back-to-back double-doubles. Nico's partial season and playoffs made him look like a clear 2017 MLS MVP candidate who could put up 15 goals and 20 assists.
They aren't pacing for anything like that. Part of that is luck/fortune/whatever. American Soccer Analysis thinks they should combine for two more goals and two more primary assists. Part of that is that Jordan Morris isn't performing at quite the level he was in his rookie season. Morris played through both a hamstring injury early and an ankle injury late. His burst, his only world class tool, was gone until the KC game. If Morris is back the Seattle attack should be good, and that means that Lodeiro will put up those counting stats that draw East Coast eyeballs come voting time.
STF: Other than Lodeiro, it was the Sounders' lock down defense that carried them into and through the playoffs last year. Now the Sounders have struggled on the back line almost as much as the Timbers. Is that all on the injuries that have kept guys like Roman Torres and Brad Evans off the pitch, or are there other issues that the Timbers should be looking to exploit?
SaH: The primary failure of the defense is due to injuries. Depth is great and everything, but playing a fourth-string right back (Jordy Delem) five times, and used five different RBs so far, is bad. Tony Alfaro started the season as the fifth-string centerback. He has five starts. Gustav Svensson started the season as the third or fourth defensive midfielder. He has seven starts at centerback and two each at right back and defensive midfield.
Again, it's great to have depth. Getting players that much experience should help the organization long term. In the short term there were positive signs early, but eventually the mental fatigue seems to have broken down Delem's ability to adapt to his new role. It should be noted that Delem played as a CB and DM with S2 last year, and this is likely his first ever experience out wide. Other teams targeted him. The cover wasn't last year's strong defenders of Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, or Brad Evans, but Alfaro and Svensson.
The defense did not bend. It broke. The second halves against both Chicago and KC were as bad as the Sounders defense has ever been.
If they are only starting one of their backups rather than only one starter, the defense should be more similar to the '16 version. It will allow long-range shots under pressure from Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso while counting on the reactions of Stefan Frei. In this match specifically there should be opportunity to exploit Evans' inability to recover at the speed that Joevin Jones does. That will pull Gustav or Cristian into the wide space, or require one of Shipp or Lodeiro to work defensively. That's the weakest space, but it isn't as weak as it was.
Projected lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Gustav Svensson, Brad Evans; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Jordan Morris
Seriously, we agreed that noon start times are bad.