What You’ll Watch
The Seattle Sounders hit the pitch on Sunday when they travel south to take on the Portland Timbers, looking to win their seventh straight match and extend their unbeaten run to 10 games. This is the third and final regular season meeting between the two teams, with the Timbers winning the previous two by one goal each.
The Timbers sit above the Sounders in the Western Conference with a record of 10-6-7 (37 points in 23 games played; 1.61 ppg). The Sounders reside in seventh place with a record of 10-9-5 (35 points in 24 games played; 1.46 ppg). Last time out, Seattle demolished the LA Galaxy 5-0, and the Timbers lost 3-0 against Sporting Kansas City.
The Sounders are hot and the Timbers, well, not, having followed a 15-game unbeaten run with three straight losses. Regardless over the weekend, a Sounders win puts them no lower than fifth — and as high as fourth — with nine games to go.
In Cascadia Cup, the Sounders currently hold onto first place with all three teams having a record of 1-1-0. The Sounders are at the top with their +1 goal difference. A win for Seattle would go a long way in them gaining back the Cup for the first time since 2015.
A Look at the Enemy
Last Five: W-W-L-L-L with seven goals scored and ten conceded
Leading Goal Scorer: Diego Valeri, nine goals (five at home)
Assist Leader: Valeri, ten assists (six at home)
Injury Report, Suspensions, and International Duty
Out: Modou Jadama (left thigh injury), Roy Miller (right thigh injury), and Jake Gleeson (bilateral tibal stress fracture surgery)
Questionable: Liam Ridgewell (lower left leg injury)
International Duty: N/A
Out: Jordan Morris (torn ACL)
Questionable: Handwalla Bwana (right midfoot sprain), Clint Dempsey (low back pain), and Brad Smith (left adductor tightness)
International Duty: N/A
REFEREE: Christopher Penso
AR1: Jason White
AR2: Corey Rockwell
4th: Joseph Dickerson
VAR: Younes Marrakchi
What to Watch
The lay of the land
So which Portland will we get this weekend: the one that didn’t win in their first five matches, the one that didn’t lose in their next 15, or the one that’s lost three in a row and looked lost doing it?
The recent struggles have come as head coach Giovanni Savarese tries to diversify his team’s skillset from the 4-3-2-1 that has served them so well. The first two matches in the recent shift to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 went well (wins against Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union), but recent performances have been less than great.
A quick note on the formation: normally it’s fairly fluid as to whether to call these things a 3-5-2 or a 5-3-2, but in the Timbers’ case the wing backs have been very aggressive and stayed higher when coming back on defense.
In the three matches against reasonable teams (that is, ignoring the two heavy counter-attacking teams -- Houston and Vancouver — that refuse to hold the ball), Portland has averaged around 45% of possession in their last five. This generally isn’t a great stat to see when running a 3-5-2, which is much more useful if you’re dictating the game. It’s a formation that really doesn’t play to the Timbers’ roster strengths; Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo aren’t really the shuttlers you need to run the channels, and moving Valeri further up and off the ball doesn’t seem like a great idea, either. While Savarese’s desire to do something drastically different from their norm is admirable, he seems to have picked the worst option.
Particularly when playing with offensive-minded shuttlers, the defense is going to suffer if you can’t keep pressure higher up the pitch and maintain possession. Things like giving up four goals to D.C. United, or three goals to Sporting KC, are going to happen. The re-introduction of Jorge Villafaña at left back will help add quality and versatility that they haven’t had with Vytas. The center backs have struggled with figuring out movement and responsibilities in the three-man back line, which has compounded the difficulties they’ve faced in central midfield. Diego Chara remains a linchpin, but he can over cover up so many deficiencies.
Given the struggles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Savarese return to the 4-3-2-1 for a match as important as this one. It’s a game ripe for the Sounders’ mostly revitalised offense, and — even if Rodriguez can’t go — should make Raúl Ruidíaz’s eyes grow three sizes if the Timbers do come out with a three-man back line. Seattle needs to be careful that they don’t lose track of notorious dream-crusher Valeri, but there’s little to suggest Portland’s offense should scare one of the top defenses in the league either way.
- Control the counter — It’s not like they’re talentless hacks. Hacks, sure — but not talentless ones. There’s enough ability to make a team that pushes too far forward pay on the back end. Checking Chara quickly on turnovers to slow down the transition game will be most helpful. Quickly turning on the pressure will also help — forcing them to work into possession quickly is a great way to play to their weaknesses. The next point will also help.
- Blank Blanco — With Valeri pushed higher, Blanco becomes the main creative force to contend with and the most likely to be a thorn in the Sounders’ side. Valeri is going to drift into the dangerous space between the defensive midfielders and back line. Key to denying him the ball here will be to harangue Blanco deeper and wider to force him into longer balls and crosses. He touches the ball about the same amount as Valeri, on average, and his successful passes are typically more vertical in all three sections of the field. Valeri may put it in the net more, but Blanco arguably is just as important in getting him those opportunities.
- Tie the back line in knots — This almost certainly will fall squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Ruidíaz, and it’s right in in his wheelhouse. We’ve seen how good he is at dragging defenders around. This week that’s the easiest route to success.
How to Watch
Date/Time: Sunday, August 26 @ 6:30 PM
Location: Providence Park — Portland, Oregon
TV: FOX Sports One
Streaming: YouTube TV
Radio: 950 KJR AM (English), El Rey 1360AM (Spanish)