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Sounders at Timbers: Three Questions

Form and standings go out the window with one of the league’s premier rivalry matches on the docket.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The first Cascadia Cup match of the season for the Seattle Sounders comes this weekend as they travel south to face the Portland Timbers. After losing both games against Portland in 2022 and three straight overall, Seattle will be keen to have a better start to 2023. The Sounders will hope to keep their good play going as they come into this one first in the West with a record of 5-1-1, +12.

The Timbers sit in 12th having not won since opening weekend with a record of 1-4-2, -6, and have only scored 6 goals in 7 games, including just 2 in 3 home games. They’ll be without midfielder Eryk Williamson, who’s out for the season after knee surgery to repair a cruciate ligament injury.

Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:39 PM on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+, iHeart Radio and El Rey 1360AM.

Sam Svilar of Stumptown Footy answered my Three Questions.

SaH: The Timbers have their own position management situation that’s sorted itself out for the moment. Aljaž Ivačič is back to his starting spot at goalkeeper — despite calling out Gio Savarese in the press — because of an injury to David Bingham. What’s the vibe in the GK union, and is there more fallout to come from that?

SF: Yeah that was, uh, pretty weird. What was possibly even weirder was how quick that beef seemed to be quashed. Within less than a week after the comments, Savarese declared Ivačič that starter, the player apologized for his actions and words, and everyone just kind of moved on. It was perhaps hastened by that injury to Bingham, as it made the decision for who will be the starter pretty straightforward, but in any case, it seems that both parties are ready to move forward.

As for if there will be any more fallout, I don’t think so... for now. Ivačič has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he wants to be viewed in the upper-tier of MLS goalkeepers, and I think the benching hurt his ego in regards to that pursuit, hence the strong words at the time. But now that he has the starting spot again, my sense is that he will focus more on letting his play do the talking. And that play is already talking pretty strongly: despite Portland being winless in their last two games Ivačič has been the standout performer in both matches. The Timbers would have almost certainly lost in Dallas were it not for a few key stops from Ivačič, and his play up in Vancouver kept the scoreline respectable for Portland (despite zero help from the team’s attackers), and even earned him a “Goalkeeper of the Matchday” nod, despite his side losing.

That’s not to say this could all blow up again when Bingham is healthy, but right now Ivačič is playing well, and that’s basically what Savarese wanted to see the whole time. A form of a truce has been reached, and it could not have come at a better time for a Timbers side that is desperate to stop the bleeding.

SaH: Eryk Williamson is now out for the season following a knee surgery. Who will step into his spot in the lineup, and how are the Timbers equipped to replace him going forward?

SF: In a season that has so far been defined by injury blows, Williamson’s is the one that hurt the most. Without him, Portland’s midfield quality drops by several tiers of quality. His two-way presence and ability to hit passes to unlock defenses was one of Portland’s most valuable tools, and there simply isn’t any like-for-like replacement.

The best person to step up and try to do his best Williamson impression will be Cristhian Paredes. His passing isn’t as strong as Williamson, but he can put in a very solid shift as a box-to-box midfielder. He showed well in stretches of last season, and has the potential to steady Portland’s midfield for the rest of the season. The bad news for Portland: he’s been one of the many midfielders who has spent the past few weeks rehabbing from injury. Savarese said he will be available this weekend, but it likely won’t be as a starter. The next man up will likely then be David Ayala, a 20-year-old Argentine who is just getting back from an injury of his own.

But the real answer to “How do the Timbers cope without Eryk Williamson?” is “Hope that Evander starts to come good.” Portland’s star offseason acquisition hasn’t quite found his groove yet, and the attacking midfielder will need to step up and show the quality the Timbers paid a club-record transfer fee for if Portland’s midfield, and by extension the rest of the team, has any hope of staying competitive.

SaH: Franck Boli just joined Portland from Hungarian side Ferencváros where he was a teammate of former Sounder Henry Wingo. How is he adjusting to the league, and is he the most likely player to put the ball in the back of the net against the Sounders?

SF: Portland’s goalscoring form has been absolutely abysmal this season, and as of now Franck Boli represents the next best chance to revitalize it. He wasn’t the first forward to score for the Timbers this year (that honor belongs to 19-year-old Homegrown striker Tega Ikoba scoring his first MLS goal in Atlanta), but Boli’s goal was perhaps the biggest. His late strike won Portland their first point in Dallas since 2018, and it showcased the kind of grit and determination to put the ball in the net that no other Timbers forward has shown thus far. The fact that Boli has already made an impact with so few minutes played shows the possibility that he could finally be that consistent goal threat up top that the Timbers haven’t had for basically a year. He’s still been steadily building up his fitness so he hasn’t played a lot yet, but Saturday will be his first home game and his best chance yet to start a match for the Timbers for the first time.

You can see his quality, but if he or any Timbers player wants to have a hope of putting the ball in the net on Saturday, the attack as a whole needs to figure itself out. Too often have forwards been isolated without service, or have attacking sequences boiled down to “one guy trying to play hero-ball in the final third”. So yes, if the attack can find a way to sync around Boli, he’s shown that he’s got the skill to finish chances. There is still just a whole lot that Portland needs to figure out for that to even be a possibility.

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