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Sounders at Portland Timbers: Three Questions

Let’s sit around a bonfire and talk about soccer teams.

The latest round of the Cascadia Cup is just a bus trip to Portland. The Seattle Sounders will look for only their third road win in MLS play over the Portland Timbers. The Rave Green are nearing full health. According to Brian Schmetzer, the injury situation is “getting better, everybody's available.” But the Green and Gold do not have that luxury. Their defense has two injuries and a suspension. They are also missing their 4th best attacker.

Seattle is 8th in the West with a 5-7-5 -5 record. Portland sits at 4th with a 7-7-3 +3 performance.

ESPN2 is carrying the match with an extended pregame starting at 7 PM PT and a kick almost immediately after 7:30 PM.

Will from Stumptown Footy answered Three Questions on Friday and Saturday. The projected lineups were prior Saturday’s practice.

SaH: Can tactics make up for the centerback situation, or is this all about 2nd stringers stepping up?

STF: Well, 2nd stringers might be a little generous given that the Timbers' likely starters at center back on Sunday, Lawrence Olum and Amobi Okugo, are more like numbers four and five on the depth chart.

Tactics will play a part, of course. The Timbers will have both Diego Chara and David Guzman in the center of the pitch on Sunday, and that duo can prove fearsome when on their respective games. Guzman in particular seems likely to drop into a deeper role, occupying the space between Olum and Okugo, and serving as the focal point of distribution out of the back. This runs contrary to what we have seen from the Timbers in recent matches with Chara taking on a more defensive role while Guzman gets forward, but with the side's defensive struggles in their last two matches solidifying the back line comes first.

Despite all of that, no amount of assistance from out wide or in the midfield will save the Timbers if their center backs can't put in a strong performance. To that end, Olum, at least, is a know quantity. A steady player and a good reader of the game, Olum has been a regular contributor for the Timbers this season and, with a few notable exceptions, has shown well since joining the side. Okugo, on the other hand, has seen much less playing time at center back than Olum and has been the emergency back up rather than a regular depth piece. Okugo's versatility and ability to plug in just about where ever is a strength that the Timbers will lean on in this match, but his lack of familiarity with the position and the rest of the back line mean that he will be put in a difficult stop on short rest after the Timbers' midweek match against Minnesota United.

SaH: Will wing play take a hit with Blanco absent?

STF: Parsing the Timbers attack has been difficult this year as Nagbe, Blanco, and Valeri all try to figure out how to coexist in the same space.

All three players are talented and capable of making things happen in the attack in a way that few others in MLS are able to manage. Unfortunately for the Timbers, no matter where they start out at the opening whistle, all three players want to move into the center of the pitch and there just is not enough room for free players, no matter how technically proficient, to operate in that area without stepping each other's toes. Or, more importantly, compacting the opposition defense and enabling them to do some toe-stepping of their own.

This issue of spacing is precisely why Dairon Asprilla, a physically gifted player with the decision-making speed of me playing pickup soccer (in other words, slow), has looked like a revelation in recent weeks for the Timbers. Asprilla, unlike the Timbers' usual attacking midfield trio, is an out and out winger, and his willingness to stay outside and make things happen on the flank affords him plenty of space as teams collapse on whatever combination of other players is in the attack.

Sunday this means that while Asprilla is filling in on the wing, Nagbe and Valeri will have that much more space in which to work in the center of the pitch. And those are two players that can make something happen when given just a little bit of space.

SaH: With Seattle exhibiting success on attacking set-pieces will Portland try to limit their fouls in dangerous areas?

STF: Should they? Yes, set pieces are dangerous. Will they? Nah.

Timbers matches remain the contentious, foul filled affairs that they have always been over the the last few years. Diego Chara is on course to become the league's all-time foul leader this year, and Fanendo Adi and David Guzman are both top four in the league for fouls committed. Naturally, Sebastian Blanco, who is suspended for Sunday's match, is right there with them, leading the league in fouls committed.

Of course, there are the usual excuses to be made for the Timbers; the absurd abuse that Adi takes every game without a single foul going his way is enough to set plenty of matches on an overly chippy path. (Just look at the end of Wednesday's match against Minnesota United where Adi ended the match with his kit torn from the neck down, but not a single foul was called in his favor.)

Amidst all of this fouling, something to keep in mind is that the Timbers tend to do their fouling rather high up the pitch. The side certainly give up dangerous fouls around the box, but the concessions from Adi, Blanco, and even the midfield pairing of Guzman and Chara all tend to occur down the field in a more speculative area -- although one that the Timbers have still managed to give up a goal or two from.

Projected Lineup: Jake Gleeson; Zarek Valentin, Lawrence Olum, Amobi Okugo, Vytas; Diego Chara, David Guzman; Dairon Asprilla, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe; Fanendo Adi

STF: The Sounders can't quite match the Timbers in terms of their current lack of form on the road, but four games without a point is still nothing to scoff at. What have the Sounders struggled with outside the confines of the CLink and is there any reason to believe that they will move past those issues on Sunday?

SaH: It is completely about a defense. Let's throw the puddle game out the window for any sort of analysis. There are still three straight horror shows on the road. During that time the Seattle Sounders were shown to be unable to defend counters, especially those going through the right channel and right wing.

Much of that was the fault of the defensive player rotation. We'll get into that heavily later, but much of the weakness lies on Jordy Delem. The thing is the team knew he was weak in that role and he kept starting. They didn't adjust on the field and lately Brian Schmetzer has taken to starting Cristian Roldan out at right back. That's a bit better.

It could also be addressed by more significant pressure from the attacking players. That leads an opposing team to make the necessary pass rather than the ideal one. It could also be addressed by better support from the right centerback and one of the defensive mids. Seattle is smart enough to know that, but still were taken apart.

To win at Portland they need higher quality players (which should happen), but they also need the attacking band to understand that they are the first line of defense when a team plays as high in possession as the Sounders do.

STF: Like the Timbers, the Sounders are at the halfway point in their season. What has been the side's biggest shortfall so far in 2017 and how can that improve going forward? What has been a strength of the side this year?

SaH: It's hard to find a strength in a team that hasn't scored more than a single goal in a game since the impressive come-from-behind 3-3 draw against New England. That game showed a strength and resilience that has since disappeared. Returning from a three goal deficit to nab points is awesome. It was April 29.

The past two months have shown an ineffective offense and the previously mentioned defensive disasters.

Preseason pundits loved the idea of adding a healthy Clint Dempsey to an attack that did quite well with Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris in 2016. Top that off with Will Bruin whip cream and Harry Shipp sprinkles should be terrific. Instead, the attack is melting. The huge names are all failing.

Clint Dempsey lacks even his normal speed. This is typical of an aging player, but harmful in that he can no longer run onto throughballs. He needs to adapt as Cuauhtémoc Blanco did and be an incredible passer who doesn't move much or he holds little value to the Sounders. Nicolas Lodeiro needs to resume his role carrying the team. Last season he willingly accepted the burden of expectation. This year he sometimes defers to Clint or fades into background. He's not aging. This will be his team for a couple more years. He needs to be the commander, not a support officer.

Lastly, Jordan Morris started the season broken. A player defined by his speed was just an average MLS forward in that aspect, and in most other forward talents he is around average or slightly better. That lasted until just a couple weeks ago. While he is coming back into his own with better, longer runs he must be aggressive. He needs to be aggressive both in his runs and his shooting. There are also significant questions as to whether he can be a Dom Dwyer type lone forward or must make a switch to a Zakuani-style winger. That confusion as to role must be defined. The transfer window rapidly approaches and the next DP will indicate the future of one of America's best forward talents.

STF: Like the Timbers, the Sounders have been hit hard by injuries and absences this season, particularly along the back line. Who is in, who is out, and who would be the Sounders' first choice back line?

SaH: It will be close to a first choice backline, except we don't really know what a first choice backline is. So many injuries have forced so many changes that Brian Schmetzer has started 10 different players in 12 different roles. Only three of those started more than half of the games this season and none have more than Joevin Jones' 14 starts.

Right back is probably the most extreme example of how bad the defensive rotation is so far in 2017. Delem started the season as something like the 5th defensive mid and 6th centerback. He had never played right back at the professional level. Jordy Delem leads the team in right back starts with six. Four other players have two or more starts there. Not many teams play five different right backs in a season, let alone have their fourth choice lead the squad in starts.

The main benefit from the rotation is that Gustav Svensson looks like a starting caliber centerback. He is more a possession-style CB, kind of like Brad Evans back when Evans was a good CB for that stretch from 2014 to early 2016. His passing is not just safe, but effective. He may have inserted himself into a role as a regular starter. It's just that we have no idea what his best role is. Svensson is also quite effective a defensive midfielder. He may become a 12th starter.

Now, supposedly Brad Evans is healthy, and supposedly he's the first choice right back. The discussion regarding the backline against Portland, and possibly the Ideal XI, is "Do they start Svensson or MLS Cup hero Roman Torres?" I expect it to be Torres.

Projected lineup:

Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Brad Evans; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin

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