The Portland Timbers welcome Cascadian rivals Seattle Sounders to JELD-WEN Field Sunday (2 PM, ESPN), the first derby encounter in the 2012 MLS season between the longtime opponents.
Despite the lack of face to face competition yet this year, the opposing supporters groups are no strangers to one another given their longtime disdain for one another. The bad blood between the Timbers Army and the Emerald City Supporters/Gorilla FC was evident in the aftermath of the early rounds of the US Open Cup, when the Timbers inexcusably lost to unheralded Cal FC in the 3rd round, while the Sounders handily dispatched that common opponent in the next.
Be it Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere online, the results left no message board unscathed as Timbers supporters lamented the nadir of their club’s defeats, while their northern neighbors reveled in a success that added salt to the Rose City’s wound. Weeks after those matches, relative form in the country’s cup competition turns the focus to performance in the league, where neither club has excelled in recent outings.
Portland enters the match recovering from a 1-nil loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, while a demoralizing 4-nil defeat to the expansion Montreal Impact last weekend and a hard fought 1-1 draw against Sporting Kansas City in midweek sees Seattle struggling to fire on all cylinders entering the derby.
Since this match counts in the supporter revered Cascadia Cup, both sides will be desperate to come out on top without regard for their current position in the table, Portland currently eighth and Seattle fourth in the Western Conference standings.
Seattle, mired in the club’s worst winless streak at six matches, are trying to play their way out of a funk that has seen them continually drop points after an aura of invincibility early was shattered by a stunning setback to Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League and surprising losses at home in league play.
One of those losses came at the feet of the San Jose Earthquakes early in the season, which just happens to be the club the Sounders must face in the next round of the US Open Cup only two days after the heated contest expected on Sunday in Portland. That congestion in the fixture schedule poses problems for Seattle manager Sigi Schmid, who has had to juggle his lineup in response to a series of injuries and suspensions.
Schmid will need to decide on a central defensive pairing as Jhon Kennedy Hurtado returns from a one match suspension, but may continue to partner Jeff Parke with the recently returned Patrick Ianni. Ianni, who scored a cracker of a goal to equalize against SKC, will be hopeful Portland strikers Kris Boyd and Danny Mwanga aren’t quite ready to emulate his technique in only their second match in partnership.
Boyd, who leads the Timbers with four goals, is not exactly rippling the net with regularity, but he’s also added an assist and had his hand in forcing two own goals by opponents, and is easily Portland’s most dangerous attacking weapon. Darlington Nagbe, second in scoring with three tallies, is the only other Timber with multiple goals, yet he’s failed to find the net since March.
Enter Mwanga, who lit up the league in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Union, but is still trying to get off the mark this year, and all in Portland are hopeful the recently acquired hometown boy can provide Boyd with a foil to allow both to produce.
Portland manager John Spencer holds an ace up his sleeve with Mike Fucito, the former Sounder suited up in Timbers green for the first time against the club that dumped the fan favorite to Montreal in the deal that brought striker Eddie Johnson to Seattle in preseason. While Fucito has had limited opportunities thus far, Sounders supporters are well aware of his qualities, and would loathe to imagine the suffering he could inflict on now third choice goalkeeper Andrew Weber between the pipes.
Spencer is not alone in controversial options at his disposal, Timbers Army hate magnet Roger Levesque likely to see minutes against a team he played for once in a friendly before he was roundly booed by the home fans for his Seattle ties. Levesque’s penchant for scoring opportune goals against the Timbers will certainly be a consideration given that Sounders leading scorer David Estrada is unavailable after breaking his foot.
Portland faces a defensive dilemma of their own after Hanyer Mosquera was ruled out after taking a swing at LA’s Jack McBean last week, the league retroactively suspending the Colombian after the officials missed the infraction. That means Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso will return to partner David Horst as they try to keep Seattle’s Johnson and Fredy Montero quiet in front of Troy Perkins.
Steven Smith should be the starter at left back over Mike Chabala, who didn’t impress against LA while the Scot was absent getting married during the international break. Captain Jack Jewsbury will take up his right back role again, leaving the biggest selections to come in midfield.
Schmid pushed Mauro Rosales into a midfield diamond with Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, and Alex Caskey against SKC at CenturyLink Field, a formation he may opt for again in the narrower confines of Portland’s Fortress of Thorns.
The Cuban born Alonso, who recently obtained U.S. citizenship, was unfortunate to have SKC’s opening goal deflect off him into the net, but his return from suspension in that match means Seattle will have it’s two most influential midfielders available.
Alvarao Fernandez certainly won’t be, the Uruguayan seeing a straight red card in the dying moments of the last match, an impetuous retaliation tackle leaving Schmid with one less option off the bench. Steve Zakuani, who infamously broke his leg in horrific fashion last spring, returns as a substitute, but in light of another sure to be physical contest, Schmid may delay his return again.
Opposite Seattle’s imposing midfield, Nagbe will try to find space in a compacted center of the park, while Diego Chara will do the heavy lifting as he tries to contain the Sounders’ distribution. Spencer prefers a 4-4-2, so Kalif Alhassan and Franck Songo’o should start again on the flanks, while Sal Zizzo and Eric Alexander will be ready and waiting to enter the fray if they can’t find success against Zach Scott or March Burch.
The Sounders, who expect nearly a thousand traveling supporters to help lift them to victory in Portland, come into the match much less confident than last year when they were in scintillating form and walked out late 3-2 winners. Portland were arguably in worse condition leading up to that match compared to this year, with five losses and a draw preceding that fixture.
For all the doom and gloom in Portland over the poor playoff possibilities their current position construes, a win over Seattle offers a springboard for hope and improvement. For Seattle supporters, the expectation of a win is what may be their undoing, as nothing can be taken for granted in a derby match. A loss or even a draw certainly wouldn’t damn their season entirely, but less than three points means Schmid will be answering pointed questions in the postgame press conference.
Whether Portland or Seattle take home three points, one, or none, the result will serve as a catalyst or cataclysm to either club. A win for Seattle would pile pressure on a profligate and punchless Portland attack, one led by a manager known for scoring goals but seemingly unable to evoke the same from his charges.
A win for Portland, and the three plus hour ride home to the Emerald City will seem less like a journey on the yellow brick road and more like a detour through the haunted forest.