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Scouting Report: Continuing to write history

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The best soccer rivalry in America hits its 100th edition this weekend.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

What You’ll Watch

The Seattle Sounders remain on the road as they travel to Providence Park to take on the Portland Timbers. This is the first of three meeting this season and this one WILL NOT count towards the Cascadia Cup.

Portland is currently in 7th place in the West (3-3-2 in eight games played; 1.38 ppg) while the Sounders are in 11th place (2-4-2 in eight games played; 1.0 ppg). A win for the Sounders will put them above Portland in the standings.

The Sounders are coming off a much needed 2-1 win over Toronto FC this past Wednesday. Portland hasn’t played since last Saturday when they defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 on the road.

This is the 100th all-time meeting between the two and Seattle holds a 50-35-14 advantage. Since both clubs joined MLS, Seattle leads the series 9-5-6 with 35 goals scored and 30 conceded. This will be the 11th time they have played in Portland and the Sounders are just 2-5-3 having scored 19 goals while conceding 25.

A Look at the Enemy

Last Five: D-L-W-W-W with 11 goals scored and seven conceded

Top Scorer: Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, four each

Top Assist Leader: Valeri, three

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes
As normal, Diego Valeri is leading Portland in goals and assists.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries, Suspensions and International Duty

Portland

Roy Miller (left Achilles tendon injury) and Jeremy Ebobisse (right thigh injury) are both listed as out. David Guzman (right knee injury), Vytas (right thigh injury) and Bill Tuiloma (right knee injury) are listed as questionable.

Seattle

Sadly for the Sounders, the out section is now much bigger than last week. Jordan Morris (torn ACL 2/22, out for season), Victor Rodriguez (right knee arthroscopy 5/1), Roman Torres (right hamstring strain) and Nicolas Lodeiro (toe fracture) are all out for this game. Harry Shipp (right ankle sprain) is listed as questionable.

Match Officials

Referee: Robert Sibiga

AR1: Jason White

AR2: Brian Poeschel

4th Official: Daniel Radford (!!!)

VAR: Jorge Gonzalez

What to Watch

Portland’s system

Caleb Porter’s sudden departure at the end of last season put the Timbers in a weird position, and the subsequent trade of Darlington Nagbe put them in a bit of a difficult one. For all of his frustrating characteristics, Nagbe is a top-notch talent working as a glue guy; losing that level of talent is difficult to replace, and the team didn’t even really try to in the winter window.

They jumped on the hottest coaching candidate in the country in Giovanni Savarese, and he’s spent the first third-ish of the season trying to figure out what he has. He’s shown a willingness to experiment (he’s run out a 4-3-2-1 a few times), and hasn’t been afraid to step on toes (such as benching Fanendo Adi early on). It’s a tough thing to take a team that’s played a single system almost exclusively for the last five years and mold them into something else, but he seems to be showing he’s up for it.

There’s nothing fancy to the four-man back line that’s been employed across every match; it’s the components that provide the most interest. Larrys Mabiala has acquitted himself nicely and Zarek Valentin has looked solid at the left back position. Alvas Powell has been - outside of a couple flukes in a single game - an offensive black hole and cavalier with his defense. Former MLS All-Star Liam Ridgewell has been caught on camera actively quitting on the team during run of play (though he’s improved since then, unfortunately). When teams have had success it has been going at those two, specifically. Chara still sits in front of them and provides his *ahem* particular brand of defense.

Whatever you may think of it, he remains successful and continues to cover areas well. They rely heavily on him to prevent attacks carving them up the middle and for support on the wings when the full back goes forward. He’s also the key pivot in their transition game; starve him of the ball and there’s little but long balls out of the back for Portland to get out with.

The offense has shifted away from the possession-based identity of the Caleb Porter days. The Timbers have functioned much closer to a more aggressive version of the Impact’s offense, aiming to stretch teams out to provide better space for Valeri, Sebastian Blanco who never backs down, and Fanendo Adi to work in. While they’ve scored almost twice as many goals as the Sounders, the underlying statistics aren’t great. their xG for the season are exactly the same despite Seattle having played a game less.

While they haven’t abandoned the wings, the christmas tree formation is built for central combinations and central defense. It’s unlikely we see it rolled out against a Seattle team that typically spends so much time out on the wings. It’s possible it gets morphed into a 4-5-1 full time; whatever choice Savarese makes, he’s going to have to deal with a Sounders defense much better at cutting out central attacks than any team he’s faced to this point.

This whole discussion should come with a huge caveat - these are never normal matches. Tactics, talent gaps, standings, and form all go out the window when these two teams meet. The deep-seated emotion on both sides has a tendency to take over in the way that only rivalry games seem to have.

Quick Keys

Attack the weak joints - Powell and Ridgewell have shown a tendency to be easily turned or bypassed this year. That’s good news for a Sounders team that likes to use the left side a lot. Back posts crosses - but not too many! - to give Will Bruin a chance to go up against the struggling veteran should be explored.

Find the balance - The forced centralisation of the box-4 midfield seemed to help everybody on the Sounders, but the reality is that it’s a terrible formation for playing the aged legs of Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso. This may be the match we finally see the diamond appear to try to keep some of that central attacking while also bringing the wings back into the game. Pumping 45 crosses in is obviously a terrible game plan, but there’s certainly value in the cross. The Sounders also aren’t going to be interested in conceding 67% of the game to the Timbers.

Don’t lose Valeri, don’t discount Blanco - Losing Nagbe has focused the offense down to just these two in terms of creativity. Their expected goal chains (xGC - explanation here) are each (5.09 and 5.59, respectively) almost double that of the next closest on the team. In the past shutting down just Valeri was typically sufficient, but Blanco seems to have settled in sufficiently to be a legitimate - if incredibly grating and dirty - attacking piece. They’re both talented at finding open spaces, good with the ball at their feet, skilled on the dribble, and need to be tracked carefully both on the ball and off. With Adi struggling to do much of anything in front of goal, controlling these two will determine much of the match.

How to Watch

Date/Time: May 13, 1:00 pm

Location: Providence Park, Portland, Oregon

TV: ESPN

Streaming: YouTube TV

Radio: 950 KJR AM (English), El Rey 1360AM (Spanish)