From The Inside: A report on the Sounders from behind enemy lines
Editor's Note: After a thrilling rainy match in Seattle in May, the Portland Timbers now host their bitter rivals Seattle Sounders on Sunday at 1pm at JELD-WEN Field (1:00pm PT, ESPN, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM). We have once again reached out to our colleague Steve Clare in Seattle to get some insights and views from the enemy camp.
Clare is the Editor of prostamerika.com, a website based in Seattle and devoted to Northwest soccer. He is also the Communications Officer for the North American Soccer Reporters. A witness to many Portland-Seattle battles, Clare takes a look at the the recent run of results for Seattle and how the Timbers might be able to break through on Sunday.
Seattle Sounders FC have been swatting aside challengers and established themselves as bona fide Supporters Shield challengers with huge wins over three Eastern Conference sides, Toronto, New York and New England. They overcame a tricky Open Cup hurdle and even found time to outplay the LA Galaxy in the first half of a scoreless Independence Day draw.
Mauro Rosales is being spoken of as “the best import ever” and even those once resistance to recognize Tyson Wahl’s contribution are praising the left back whose form has ousted Leo Gonzalez from the side.
Roger Levesque has been notching up big numbers and starting games. Kasey Keller has made key saves when he has had to. Osvaldo Alonso is fast becoming one of the most dominant players in his position, or maybe even any other, in MLS.
Indeed, everything is coming up clicking for Seattle as they head to the Rose City.
For the Timbers to succeed, they’ll have their work cut out for them.
Alonso, who no longer goes by the defensive midfielder moniker, is emerging into that most dangerous of players, a box-to-box player. If Timbers fans need any education on that concept, they could ask colour commentator Robbie Earle who was once considered the finest box-to-box player in England with Wimbledon. His views on Alonso will be fascinating so tape the game if you are attending.
One man already watching tape may be Jack Jewsbury who will get a bird’s eye view of the Cuban as he patrols a line connecting the semi circles of the two penalty areas.
If the Timbers’ captain can dominate that encounter and nullify Alonso as an attacking force, Portland will have won the first of the key battles.
However, Sounders’ recent strength has not been based on an incredible upturn in form by one player, but by considerable improvements by several. Erik Friberg and Mauro Rosales probably would be the next two to figure on that list.
The Argentine Rosales has exhibited hunger on the field and a positive and humble demeanor off it. Whether by coincidence or not, the team seems more connected and united when he plays. He can take players on, he can complete short interactive passing movements, reading almost all his colleagues’ runs, he can cross and he just added his first Sounders goal.
He has made both Alvaro Fernandez and Roger Levesque look far more dangerous. In short, whatever Rosales can do, he can also make other players better. No one ever accused Freddie Ljungberg of doing that.
The Swedish Friberg keeps improving incrementally. Remove any hopes that he might be a footballing Bjorn Borg and what you have is a player who can make a difference at MLS level without draining the salary cap.
And what of the Old Rocker, Roger “Cleats up” Levesque? In some ways he is like a cuddly old Teddy Bear to the Timbers faithful in that they like to kick him around and it reminds them of a more innocent time in their lives; of the rivalry between them and the Sounders organization of days past. He validates the length of the rivalry and reminds all sides that the rivalry is real, and not concocted in a room full of marketing men.
It seems he has edged himself ahead of Oregon’s Nate Jaqua in the pecking order too. If the match becomes a battle of guts, rather than a battle of skill, then Levesque could still be a key player.
One last player forces himself into the conversation when addressing causes for the Sounders upturn.
I used to get stick from fans for defending Tyson Wahl. One such fan stood behind me at Starfire once during a game, berating me at intervals for my defense of a player whom he considered useless. I never heard from that fan again until the day Leo Gonzales arrived. Then he emailed me quoting the signature as proof Schmid also considered Wahl to be (in the Glasgow vernacular) a dumpling.
To that fan, and many others, I now say “I told you so.”
Wahl is now an integral part of Sounders resurgence. He delivers a set piece better than any other player in the club’s MLS era. His delivery from the moving ball is pretty decent for a lanky full back too. He is a threat at those corners he doesn’t take himself, and gives them added height when defending them, in addition to that provided by Sounders’ own center halves.
How do Portland overcome this?
In my view, they need to turn this game into a battle. They are the cleanest side in MLS in terms of conceding free kicks. That won’t do this time. They need to play like eleven Vinnie Jones (go back to the page where you googled Bjorn Borg) and “get in amongst them.”
Every player has to become a tackler within the confines of staying on their feet and not showing studs too early. This game has the potential to be combustible. Time on the ball will be Sounders currency as it normally is when a side is on form. Allowing them to settle will magnify the difficulty of the Timbers task.
At the other end, much as it may supply ammunition to Sigi Schmid’s jibes, a set piece is the likeliest path to a Portland goal. Kenny Cooper is a quality player and will regain form at some point. If it is Sunday, so be it. But on the off chance that the Timbers forward line still hasn’t gelled by then, then Jewsbury’s delivery will have to cause sufficient problems inside a generally capable Sounders rearguard.
John Spencer’s best hope on Sunday may well be that one of his star players who has been suffering a dip in form, just rises out of it. Darlington Nagbe might have a creative game at any point to build off last week's world-class strike. Diego Chara has the quality to grab any MLS match by the throat or whatever part of the anatomy it takes. They both did well in the first match at Qwest Field.
They, and a few others, will need to recover those heady days if the Timbers are to upset the form book on Sunday, especially as that from book currently weighs the same as a juggernaut.