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Sounders are big favorites, but this rivalry is weird

Don't be shocked if this doesn't go quite as smoothly as it should.

Last Updated
3 min read
Photo courtesy of Sounders FC Communications

Rivalries can do funny things to players and teams. Players carrying slight injuries tend to find their way onto the field. Teams down in the dumps suddenly find a way to gut out a result. Cliché as the concept may be, there does seem to be a general truth to the idea that you can “throw out the records” iin these kinds of games.

That’s especially true when it comes to games between the Sounders and Timbers.

The best example of this may have come last year when the Sounders last hosted their neighbors to the south. The Sounders were riding high, having won 6 of 9 since becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League and sitting fourth in the Western Conference table.

The Timbers, meanwhile, were mostly struggling. Sure, they had gone unbeaten in four, but they were sitting outside the playoff line despite having played two more games than the Sounders. It seemed a very good opportunity for the Sounders to beat the Timbers at home for the first time since 2017, ending an ignominious period of this rivalry’s history that defies all reasonable explanation.

We know what happened. The Sounders unveiled their championship banner, Drew Carey talked a bit of smack and the the Timbers delivered their biggest-ever blowout in front of a stunned crowd.

The Timbers went on to sweep the season series despite not being very good and now carry a three-game winning streak against the Sounders into today’s game.

On paper, this is a game the Sounders should dominate. Whether you’re looking at advanced or standard stats, opposing styles of play or the health of star players, the Sounders have pretty dramatic advantages.

The Timbers have so far been one of the least effective offenses in the league, aren’t particularly good defensively outside of goalkeeper Aljaž Ivačič — and he was recently feuding with head coach Gio Savarese — are riding a six-game winless run and will be missing four of their top six players.

The Sounders are leading MLS with a +12 goal-difference, have a league-best +6.6 xGD, are doing a pretty solid Manchester City impression with their positional play and are sitting atop the Western Conference.

But weird things happen. The Sounders are all too aware of that.

“They’re a dangerous team,” Morris said. “They have good depth, they’ll be ready and excited to play. We can’t let that change our mindset and have to match their intensity.”

Lineup projection

With Albert Rusnák dealing with some heel pain, I suspect Josh Atencio would have been starting alongside João Paulo. But he tweaked his adductor and is not even traveling. That creates some interesting questions for Brian Schmetzer.

The big one is the health of Rusnák. He apparently got a cortisone shot on Friday and is expected to be available, but how much he plays could be how much pain he’s in. If he’s feelling good, it’s going to be tempting to put him on the field.

The alternatives are either Obed Vargas or Danny Leyva. Vargas appears to be ahead of Leyva on the depth chart based on first-team playing time, but hasn’t started any competitive match since last June. Leyva at least has a couple starts for the Defiance this year and is probably at a more reliable fitness level.

The other big question is at forward. With Raúl Ruidíaz apparently back to fitness, scoring his first goal of the season last week and being a certified Timbers killer, there’s a valid case to make for him starting. I think Schmetzer is going to go another way, which is as much about Léo Chú as it is Morris.

With Chú and Morris, the Sounders can really stretch the field and create space for the midfield to operate. The Timbers are surely going to do some bunkering and getting them in transition is the best way to force them out of their shell. That they’re both in the form of their lives is even more reason to keep them on the field.

If things aren’t going so well, Ruidíaz — to say nothing of Héber or even Fredy Montero — are perfectly capable of coming off the bench to change the game.

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