The Portland Timbers travel north to take on the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field this Saturday (7 PM, NBC Sports), a monumental clash of regional foes in a match with the highest stakes yet for either club in the MLS era.
While these sides met numerous times in the postseason during the NASL and second division incarnations of the two clubs, by orders of magnitude those contests pale in comparison to the anticipation of what is arguably the biggest derby in the longstanding and storied history of the rivalry.
Past derbies and even the four consecutive US Open Cup finals the Sounders played in fail to meet the level of intensity and apprehension sure to be on display this weekend, an encounter between two teams with quite literally everything riding on results of this two legged affair.
The Timbers enter the match in form following a 5-nil thrashing of Chivas USA in the final regular season outing, a result that capped eight matches unbeaten to complete the campaign and claim first place in the Western Conference.
That finish also put a stamp on the marked improvement Portland made under new manager Caleb Porter, leading the club to its first postseason appearance in the MLS era after the first two seasons ended in coming up short in the inaugural year and an even more futile effort at the second attempt.
Seattle, meanwhile, earned their fifth consecutive playoff berth in less auspicious circumstances, just a month before season’s end looking like Supporters Shield favorites only to fall to earth with a miserable run of seven matches without a win to round out the schedule.
Ultimately the Sounders relied on the misfortune of other teams to back their way into the postseason, but in spite of a forgettable finish Seattle managed to turn things around with a 2-nil triumph over the Colorado Rapids in the single match elimination round on Wednesday.
A cracking goal from Brad Evans put the Sounders in command a half hour into the match, but a perilous decision from goalkeeper Michael Gspurning to charge out of his box and inexplicably handle the ball in the waning moments to earn a red card put his side in a precarious position.
Eddie Johnson’s well worked strike in stoppage time bailed out the Austrian and relieved the tension for a sea of Rave Green fans, who will be even more on edge with a Timbers team coming to town that dispatched the Sounders 1-nil in the Rose City just two weeks ago.
That outcome leveled the results between the sides this season, a draw in Seattle in March and a Sounders victory in the Emerald City in August a sign of the growing parity between the teams. The most recent win for Portland not only piled on to Sounder misery in their now broken losing streak, but also denied them the Cascadia Cup as the Vancouver Whitecaps walked away with the trophy this year.
That double blow provides further incentive for a star laden Seattle side to succeed, Clint Dempsey finally notching a goal in the club’s regular season finale to start to repay the league’s faith in his big money midseason signing.
The return of the club’s three US Men’s National team stalwarts offers a more composed Sounders squad than the one that struggled through a stretch of international absences and injuries.
While Obafemi Martins is still suspect with a groin strain, Johnson appears fully recovered while Djimi Traore and Shalrie Joseph provide additional depth.
Traore paired well with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado at centerback in the win over Colorado, but with Gspurning gone backup netminder Marcus Hahnemann will need to play big to ensure he doesn’t see Portland put another goal past him.
DeAndre Yedlin was pulled at halftime and youthful exuberance may see Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid opt for veteran poise in March Burch or perhaps Evans dropping back into defense, with the steady presence of Leo Gonzalez on the opposite flank.
Pulling Evans out of the diamond midfield recently employed to open up space for Dempsey could reduce the supply line, but may provide an opening for Argentina’s Mauro Rosales to offer creativity if not defensive cover.
Osvaldo Alonso is sure to find himself occupied by the darting runs of Portland’s Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe up the middle. The Cuban lies deep as the base of the diamond, and Dempsey at its tip will be hard pressed to find time to create space with Diego Chara and Timbers captain Will Johnson nipping at his heels.
One time Timber Adam Moffat is now finding a home in the Seattle midfield, the Scot sure to be up for it against a club that deemed him surplus to requirements in 2011.
Timbers striker Jose Valencia will be keyed up as well, the young Colombian earning the manager’s confidence with recent starts, but may find his place challenged by Ryan Johnson, whose goal as a substitute against Chivas marked the Jamaican’s ninth of the year, one of four Portland players with as many or more than Seattle’s top scorer Johnson.
That balanced attack is further complemented by wide forward Rodney Wallace, the Costa Rican’s aggressiveness instrumental in creating chances and goals all season.
The Sounders Johnson possesses a potent partner in Lamar Neagle, the Federal Way native a hometown hero hoping to get one by Donovan Ricketts, who denied him on several occasions the last time these two teams met.
To keep the Seattle attack at bay the Great Wall of Gambia lines up with Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso in the middle, while Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington continue to prove their worth on the wings.
As is often the case there is little to separate two sides espousing vastly different philosophies, the slashing and swashbuckling style of Seattle in contrast to the deliberate possession of Portland.
The selection available to the Sounders provides a paper advantage over the Timbers, yet the talent at Schmid’s disposal is inconsistent, at times appearing world beaters and in others more like mercenaries without a common mission.
While Portland lacks the celebrity names on their roster, a team that in recent years more closely resembled the Bad News Bears is now a story of redemption under Porter, the likes of Wallace, Nagbe, and Kalif Alhassan enjoying career years under the new gaffer.
The astute pickup of MLS assist leader Valeri and the league leading clean sheets of Ricketts are tangible examples of why the Timbers enter this match as surprising favorites, the Sounders in the unfamiliar position of underdog against a team typically referred to by Seattleites as their little brother.
That role reversal surely ups the ante in the stands as well, the traveling Timbers Army sure to remind their hosts that baby brother is all grown up.
For the Emerald City Supporters the thought of Portland advancing at their expense (and likewise for their counterparts) is an unfathomable option, but after half a decade of anointing the Sounders all but champions their team’s most notable silverware is still the sheen of ever spinning turnstiles.
While Cascadia Cups and USOC titles are nothing to discount, both clubs know full well that the one to bring the MLS Cup to the Northwest for the first time will be the ones to make an indelible mark in the annals of history, not to mention on the psyche of the opposition.
It is still early days in the quest for the league’s most coveted trophy, whomever survives this series takes an immeasurable leap forward with the confidence to claim it.