Timbers Down Seattle To Surge Atop Table

The Portland Timbers overtook the Seattle Sounders to sit atop the standings with a 1-nil win courtesy of a first half Kalif Alhassan goal, sending the Cascadia Cup to the Vancouver Whitecaps while putting Portland in pole position to claim a playoff berth and possibly the Supporters Shield.

Caleb Porter opted for Alhassan over an injury battling Diego Valeri in midfield, with skipper Will Johnson and Diego Chara in behind forwards Darlington Nagbe, Max Urruti, and Jose Valencia.

Seattle’s Sigi Schmid was forced into rotation as well, the biggest change in between the pipes with backup Marcus Hahnemann replacing Michael Gspurning, with Leo Gonzales and Patrick Ianni included in the back four with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and DeAndre Yedlin.

The changes didn’t end there for the Sounders, Clint Dempsey starting alongside Lamar Neagle while former Timber Adam Moffat and Alex Caskey came on in midfield to complement captain Osvaldo Alonso and Mauro Rosales.

Portland stayed with an unchanged backline, Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso flanked by Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury.

The super cyan clad Sounders pressed the advantage of kickoff to earn an early free kick, but two attempts were two too few to test Donovan Ricketts in the opening minutes.

Chippy challenges were exchanged on numerous occasions before Gonzalez picked out Neagle at the top of the box, but the Seattle striker’s bending effort went wide of the far post eight minutes into the contest.

Portland countered with pressure from Urruti, who reacted quicker to a loose ball than Yedlin to draw a foul at the top of the arc just outside the Seattle eighteen yard box.

Johnson lined up behind the ball and assumed the responsibility to clear the wall, but wasted the opportunity as he was well over the goal in the attempt.

Chara cut down Dempsey from behind minutes later, and the pinpoint delivery from Rosales found the head of Neagle, who nearly caught out Ricketts at the far post.

The danger was far from over from Portland, who struggled to clear the ensuing corner that eventually fell to Dempsey, who watched in angst as his as his free header caromed off the crossbar just before the hour mark.

Following the near miss Dempsey looked lively and determined to notch his first goal for the Sounders since his return to MLS after a long spell in England, dropping ever deeper to pick up the ball to create another chance to open up the home side.

The Timbers tried to push play to the wings, but found little as both Valencia and Harrington failed to produce distribution from the outside. Alhassan and Nagbe fared little better up the middle, the Sounders ever present to any attack up the center of the park.

One run 26 minutes in by Alhassan looked promising, only for Moffat to pull it back prematurely, ending the threat and earning the match’s first yellow card in the process.

The contentious nature of the encounter prevented any measure of continuity for either side, and as the match wore on it seemed ever more likely a set piece might decide the outcome.

When Caskey felled Chara near the sideline just past the half hour mark to provide just such a chance, Johnson crossed the ball in to meet the head of Jewsbury, but the former captain could not keep the connection down to threaten Hahnemann.

The next best effort came shortly after when Nagbe picked up the ball in midfield with Alonso snapping at his heels, and the Portland forward unleashed a rocket from outside the area that forced Hahnemann into his first real save of the evening.

The shot served as a precursor to Nagbe’s ability moments later when he again outran Alonso after nipping into dribble on goal from near midfield, a late challenge just enough to keep the goalkeeper from being beaten.

Seattle seemed subdued until Moffat crashed a long range shot off the boards behind the goal, eliciting chants of ‘Timbers reject’ from the Timbers Army in a less than flattering welcome back to the city where he briefly plied his trade in 2011.

Portland’s poise in possession eventually won out when a series of passes found Jewsbury with time and space to deliver an inswinging ball.

A missed header from Nagbe threw off Yedlin as his header was poorly cleared, and the ball bounced back out to the top of the box in the 45th minute where Alhassan was more than happy to put it back on frame with a blistering finish to open the scoring just before the break.

Amidst the smoky encore in the North End Alhassan was issued a caution by the official for excessive celebration, the removal of his shirt by comparison minor to the emotion on display in the stands.

After a bright start for Seattle and nearly making it to intermission with a clean sheet, the late concession was a cruel blow for the visitors, who now found themselves trailing in match in which they should have led.

Schmid and Porter were content to stick with their starters as the match kicked off in the second half, perhaps due more to a lack of consistent options off the bench than anything else.

Valencia made the first foray forward minutes after the resumption of play, a rare run in behind Gonzalez offering an opening that the young Colombian could not keep down as he blasted high over Hahnemann.

The Sounders responded with an incisive cross from Neagle that Jewsbury failed to clear at the far post, the defender grateful his former teammate Moffat did no better than to pop the ball back across goal and into the hands of a waiting Ricketts.

A spurt of pressure from the Timbers nearly undid the Sounders again ten minutes into the second interval, Chara battling Dempsey off as the ball squirted forward to Nagbe, who neatly backheeled in stride to set up Johnson breaking into the box.

The Portland captain looked clear in on goal, but snatched at the chance and put the ball high and wide.

The first change of the contest came a minute later in the 57th, Rosales off for David Estrada as Schmid began to look for fresh legs to counter the pace of Portland.

A long ball from Johnson was missed by Hurtado as he fell to the turf unaided, then tumbled over Urruti as the Argentine tried to get around the defender, only for the official to oddly play advantage at the hour mark.

Porter then made his first substitution as Ben Zemanksi replaced Valencia in the 67th minute, a move ready made to shore up a one goal advantage.

The match grew chippier with each passing moment and the frustration of Seattle grew, a trip by Hurtado on Nagbe drew a foul call followed by a late challenge from Alonso on Johnson, the aftermath erupting into an elbow from the Sounders captain to the jaw of his Timbers counterpart.

The center referee caught the first infraction to issue a yellow to Hurtado, while the assistant referee was wise to the Cuban’s ways after the whistle was already blown. After an officials’ conference amongst a crowd of players in a heated exchange, Alonso earned a red card for his inability to rein in his insipid ire.

Now down a goal and down a man, Dempsey was sacrificed to the sidelines in the 77th minute as Steve Zakuani came on in the star’s stead, with the addition of Andy Rose for Caskey minutes later.

The infusion of a new players seemed to spike the energy even higher for Seattle, and soon after an excellent chance was presented to Estrada, who cut inside his marker to force Ricketts into a save at his near post in a rare second half shot on goal for the Sounders.

The Timbers sent Urruti into space moments later, but the Argentine flailed his shot across goal and then went to ground suffering from what appeared to be a hamstring strain. Urruti was stretchered off as a precaution, with Frederic Piquionne seeing his first minutes since an injury took him out of the lineup in early August.

The change was followed two minutes later with Sal Zizzo in for Alhassan, the Ghanaian walking off to a standing ovation from the home support.

The departing player’s influence was the difference in the match’s margin, one that looked considerably slimmer when the ball fell to the feet of Zakuani in the waning moments, the striker’s shot bouncing off the underside of a diving defender and then the crossbar.

Portland eventually cleared in helter skelter fashion as Jewsbury cleared a rebounded shot off the line, hearts in mouths in the Rose City as a near equalizer was averted.

The Timbers earned a corner that came to Zemanski at the near post, where the midfielder beat Hahnemann with a cross across the six yard box, but Seattle cleared before a Portland player could pounce on the open look from close range.

It proved the last chance at heroics for either side as the home side was content to run out the remainder of five minutes of injury time and hold on for the win.

The victory moves Portland into a tie on points with the New York Red Bulls for first place in the Supporters Shield standings, while also ensuring the Cascadia Cup will not be going to Seattle.

Defeat for the Sounders means British Columbia takes bragging rights for the best team in the region in this year’s head to head competition, a result that stings worse for the traveling fans who now must look up to see Portland in the league table while Vancouver pressures their playoff hopes from below.

The result marks a fourth consecutive home win for Portland and a third straight home conquest with a score of 1-nil, a heady feat considering each of those was over direct competitors for Western Conference playoff positioning.

Schmid and Seattle will head North ruing the absence of the suspended Zach Scott and injured stars Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins for this third consecutive disheartening loss and fifth without a win, but missing players won’t be an acceptable excuse given Portland won without Valeri and other top producers like Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace.

Even on matches played heading into the final two rounds of league play, the Timbers are rolling and looking to cut more logs in preparation for their first ever playoff berth, which is now a mere formality with a game at home to Real Salt Lake next weekend and then away to Chivas in the final match of the regular season.

The Sounders are on the road to a now eliminated FC Dallas and then home against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and nothing less than two wins will keep alive hopes of finishing atop the league and restoring a squad shorn of confidence in the end of season run-in.

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Timbers Versus Sounders: A Cup (And Perhaps A Shield) Hang In The Balance

The Portland Timbers welcome age old foes the Seattle Sounders to JELD-WEN Field Sunday evening (6 PM, ESPN), a titanic clash of two sides whose hopes of deciding silverware this season hinge on 90 minutes and change.

While Portland’s 2-2 draw at the Vancouver Whitecaps last Sunday eliminated them from retaining the Cascadia Cup, the 4-1 trouncing the Canadians handed out in Seattle on Wednesday sets the stage for an epic contest in a storied rivalry.

If match previews were written a mere month ago, few would have predicted the predicament the Sounders find themselves in now, and only the staunchest supporters could have hoped for this opportunity to present itself to the Timbers.

To take the cup back to Seattle now the Sounders are in a must win situation, a draw no longer enough as the loss to the Whitecaps provided Portland the perfect platform to play spoiler for their fiercest opposition.

Regional bragging rights are not all that’s on the line, the stakes much higher with both teams poised to assume the lead in the Supporters Shield standings with a victory this weekend as the teams above them sit idle during the international break.

When the two teams last met in late August, the Sounders went home 1-nil winners over the visiting Timbers, a result that spurred Seattle onto a five match win streak to put them top of the table. The loss for Portland came amidst their worst stretch of the season, a spell of seven matches with only one win.

Since then the Sounders are lacking the same energy that mid-season acquisition Clint Dempsey seemed to inspire in the club at the time, and form has followed the fashion of the Designated Player’s slow to heal hamstring with only two points from the last 12 on offer.

Normally draws against the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls are points most teams will readily take, but when followed up by a double dose of ignominious defeats it is a bitter pill to swallow for Seattelites who were readying for a potential treble winning season as they basked in the afterglow of Dempsey’s arrival.

While the statistics still show a slight advantage for Seattle on all fronts, the oddsmakers will throw those numbers out the window come derby day, particularly with Portland entering the encounter on a five match unbeaten streak.

The breakdown between the teams starts at the back, where Seattle netminder Michael Gspurning is guilty of conceding 11 goals in his past four outings.

The Austrian is hardly alone in culpability for the recent defensive woes of the Sounders, but a late nutmeg by Nigel Reo-Coker to cap Vancouver’s dominance was a fitting display of the team’s current inability to keep a clean sheet.

At the opposite end of the pitch is an entirely different story, Donovan Ricketts notching clean sheets in two of his last three starts, and in spite of seeing two Camilo crackers go by him was still considered a Man of the Match candidate against the Whitecaps due to a string of outstanding saves.

While Ricketts stellar play is a big part of Portland’s success this season, the recent rejiggering of the Portland backline is proving a masterstroke from manager Caleb Porter.

The return to fitness of Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso creates the Great Wall of Gambia with Pa Modou Kah at centerback, and Jack Jewsbury’s recovery from injury means the first choice pairing opposite Michael Harrington offers a veteran presence across the backline.

That is in sharp contrast to the revolving door in defense for the Sounders, red cards for Zach Scott in two of the last four matches leaving head coach Sigi Schmid to shake his head at a lack of discipline from one of his most experienced players.

That experience was sorely missed against the Whitecaps, and the confidence of a backline consisting of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Djimi Traore, Marc Burch and DeAndre Yedlin is hardly at its high point after nine goals given up in the last two games, so Patrick Ianni could step in from the start.

For all the troubles keeping the ball out of the net Seattle is also missing an offensive spark, particularly one that can find the mark early before the team digs itself a hole.

Leading scorer Eddie Johnson and utility man Brad Evans are away on national team duty, and with the Sounders shorn of two of their most consistent performers the production needs to come from other sources.

Dempsey appears the obvious choice to shine in what could be a wet affair in the Rose City, but after only playing a bit part in an already decided defeat to Vancouver his status is still day to day with the player failing to record a full match much less suit up regularly in the past seven for the club.

Lamar Neagle and Obafemi Martins are just shy of Johnson in the team scoring charts, and while Mauro Rosales continues to distribute and create in the attack this campaign, the chemistry in the attacking third is lacking of late.

Captain Osvaldo Alonso and Andy Rose are featuring in the middle of the park more often of late, but Schmid could see Sunday as a chance to let former Timber Adam Moffat loose from long range, or try to slow the attack of Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe by putting Shalrie Joseph in as a stopgap measure.

The combination of Valeri and Nagbe is proving one more difficult to contain each week, particularly with newcomer Max Urruti buzzing around the opposition box.

Portland are without Ryan Johnson and Alvas Powell both away with Jamaica, the former’s goal threat and the latter’s pace from the wingback position somewhat limiting Porter’s options, but Jose Valencia could see time should Portland need a late goal.

Rodney Wallace is also off with Costa Rica, so Kalif Alhassan is likely to start on the wing if Valeri is set to go from the opening whistle.

Skipper Will Johnson and Diego Chara will be instrumental in thwarting Seattle’s own forward forays up the middle, and which side wins the midfield battle early could determine the outcome.

The end result is far from predestined with a focused Portland preparing for the wounded animal that is Seattle. Pride, trophies, and glory are up for grabs so there will be no lack of intensity in one of the marquee matchups of the year.

The buildup to kickoff is the stuff of a broadcaster’s dreams, and all eyes will be on the Pacific Northwest as a preview of two MLS Cup contenders first try to settle a local dispute while making a claim for the top postseason seed.

No matter who wins at least one cup will find its resting place for the next year on Sunday, while the battle for the shield will see the gauntlet thrown down with only two matches to go in the season.

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Timbers Versus Whitecaps: Role Reversal, Eh?

The Portland Timbers travel to play at the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place Sunday evening (5 PM, ROOT Sports), a matchup of Cascadian rivals in a role reversal to when they met this time of year at the end of last season.

In that contest the Whitecaps were already assured of their first ever MLS postseason place, and the Timbers seized the opportunity to salvage a disappointing campaign by taking down Vancouver via a Jack Jewsbury strike, one that brought the Cascadia Cup back to Portland as Seattle Sounders fans were forced to relinquish their hold on the trophy.

Now in the third encounter between the sides in 2013 the Whitecaps are on the outside looking in, while the Timbers appear poised to earn their first ticket to the MLS Cup playoffs as they sit comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, a dark horse pick to claim the Supporters Shield.

In two previous contests this year Portland first fought back to earn a late 2-2 draw in Vancouver in May, then the Whitecaps returned the favor when they rallied to tie the Timbers in the Rose City in August.

The match represents a next to last chance for the visitors to keep a grip on the Cascadia Cup with a win, but the desperation to keep playoff hopes alive and a higher percentage chance of obtaining the cup lies with the hosts, the Whitecaps possessing a two point advantage over the Timbers in the race to hoist silverware.

Current cup standings leader Seattle will still have much to say about the cup’s final destination this season, squaring off against Vancouver next Wednesday at home before heading south to Portland for the second of back to back derbies the ensuant weekend.

A win or draw for the Whitecaps eliminates the Timbers from the cup competition, so Portland enters the match with plenty to play for as they attempt to retain bragging rights in the region.

Whoever ultimately wins it are assured of even greater reward as a fourth Cascadia Cup is on offer for all three clubs, who are tied on three cups apiece dating back to their days as competitors in the second division.

The importance of the match for both teams and the added atmosphere of a derby match means no quarter will be given by either side, and the outcome lies on which team can execute in a supercharged environment.

Vancouver are suffering from inconsistency of late, a study in contrast as a thorough dismantling of the Impact in Montreal was followed a week later by a listless loss to a second choice lineup for Real Salt Lake at home.

Which Whitecaps team shows up may come down to the availability of striker Kenny Miller, the Scot ailing of late with a muscle strain making him questionable for Sunday.

Whether or not Miller plays, captain Jay DeMerit’s return from a near season long injury provides some much needed resolve in a squad with the unfortunate tendency to switch off at inopportune times.

One player who embodies that inconsistency is Camilo, the Brazilian capable of sparking or stagnating an offense that is heavily dependent on his production. The forward is third in the league with 16 goals scored and 5 assists to boot, but the team’s results are too reliant on his conversion rate and as Camilo goes, so goes Vancouver.

Portland bring a premium South American star of their own in Argentine Diego Valeri, the league leader in assists also tallying eight goals to share the top of the team scoring table.

While Miller matches that total, the scoring drops off after that for Canadian club while the Oregon based side boasts an attack with five players with six or more strikes with Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, captain Will Johnson, and Rodney Wallace all dangerous from the run of play.

That potency does not count newcomer Max Urruti, Valeri’s countryman opening his account in MLS with a game winning goal over the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday. Urruti’s all action style has seemingly usurped the Jamaican Johnson’s once presumed starting role, manager Caleb Porter enjoying an abundance of offensive options.

Vancouver gaffer Martin Rennie does possess playmakers of his own, young Canadian starlet Russell Tiebert proving a revelation as a more regular starter this season to lead the team in assists, but his distribution is dipping recently as his appearances diminished due to international duty and other absences.

The dwindling returns of the Whitecaps offense is what is most worrying for Rennie and company, shut out in 5 of their last 10 outings and only 2 wins from their last 11 games.

Finding a way to flip the offensive switch on could come back to Camilo, who has a history of scoring against Portland, including a free kick finish earlier this year.

That task may prove difficult to repeat with Portland’s Donovan Ricketts only allowing one goal in the past four games, a much more secure record than the nine goals conceded in the last seven games by Vancouver’s new Danish netminder David Ousted.

Keeping Camilo in check comes down to the skipper and midfield partner Diego Chara while also contending with Gershon Koffie, the Ghanaian notching a goal of his own the last time the Timbers came to town.

Nigel Reo-Coker and Jun Marques Davidson will tangle in the center of the park as well, angling to deter Valeri from finding space in the attacking third.

DeMerit will be in behind alongside Carlyle Mitchell flanked by Young-Pyo Lee and Jordan Harvey, a backline that will be forced to hurry in the face of constant pressure from Urruti’s harassment.

If Miller is still sidelined Tommy Heinemann may start again up top, the target man a potential handful for Gambian centerbacks Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso.

On the outside Michael Harrington and Jewsbury will play pivotal roles in supporting the wingers while containing Tiebert and possibly the pace of Darren Mattocks or the creativity of Daigo Kobayashi.

A large contingent of the Timbers Army is expected to travel for this last big away day of the regular season, a group that would be more than happy to see a third straight 1-nil win provide the impetus to again sing about their house in the middle of BC.

In addition to every other reason the Whitecaps are eager to take down the Timbers this weekend, perhaps most important as a point of pride is to finally take three points off Portland in the top flight, particularly at home.

The eventual winner this weekend takes a big step toward the playoffs and the Cascadia Cup, so while a setback for Portland reduces the chance of adding to the trophy cabinet, a loss is near fatal for Vancouver.

As derbies go the stakes could hardly be higher, and a formidable task awaits both sides when the Cascadian clash kicks off in Canada.

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