Strong's Notes: Keep A Cool Head
So, here we are again: the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders resume their rivalry for a second, 63rd, or 76th meeting, depending on how you want to define their meandering 36 years of soccer history (July 10, 1:00pm PT, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM). The biggest difference between this meeting and the last in mid-May is the different fortune of the two teams. Whereas the teams were tied in the standings when they faced off in Seattle, there is now a 14 point—and four games played—gap between them.
The Timbers’ narrative doesn’t need extensive retelling here; since the 1-1 draw in Seattle, they’re just 1-5-1, on a six-game winless run, and boasting the lowest point total for all MLS teams over that stretch. After their magical five-for-five start at home, the Timbers are winless in their last four matches at JELD-WEN Field, and both collectively and individually are in desperate search for things that are going right.
By contrast, the Sounders enter Sunday’s game unbeaten in seven, without loss in five straight on the road, and with a 5-1-2 mark since that last meeting. Despite some busy stretches of games, and injuries that have forced coach Sigi Schmid to make numerous changes each game to his starting XI, Seattle finds themselves right in the hunting for the Supporters’ Shield at the halfway mark of the league season.
So, given all that, it sets up as the perfect narrative for a glorious, transcendent, breakout win for the Timbers, doesn’t it? Here are some of the keys I see to that happening:
Keep A Cool Head
We talked extensively before the first Timbers-Sounders game about the need to stay away from the types of emotional outbursts in rivalry games that lead to silly cards. While that remains true, there’s an almost more important way in which the Timbers have to keep an even keel on Sunday, and that’s to keep their focus and concentration when things go sideways.
Make no mistake, something will go wrong at some point during the game, whether it’s (another) early goal against, a bad referee decision, a crucial miss in front of goal, whatever. The Timbers haven’t done a great job during this dry spell of staying calm when that happens, and just as often a second goal against, or a second mistake, has followed the first.
Leave it to Timbers coach John Spencer to sum it up best. When asked what they key to the matchup was, he said Saturday, “Courage and desire. The team that wants it most, and has more winners, with bigger hearts in them, will win the game.”
Mind The Middle
Again, same as the first matchup, the midfield battle will be crucial for the Timbers to hope for a win. Seattle plays a diamond in midfield, with—presumably—Osvaldo Alonso as the defensive base, breaking up attacks in front of the backline, and Erik Friberg as the floating, creating playmaker at the point. With the Timbers’ style of two box-to-box midfielders in Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara, communication and organization between those two will be crucial in not only tracking and closing down Friberg, but keeping Alsonso from bulldozing all their attacking attempts.
Incidentally, the last time the Timbers really launched attacks well from midfield, in my opinion? The last time they played Seattle.
One of the other points coach Spencer made to the media on Saturday was his team keeping a clean sheet, which hasn’t happened in the last six games—dating, not coincidentally, to their last win. For that to happen, three key players must be accounted for at all times by the Timbers defensive corps.
First, on the right wing, is the Argentine Mauro Rosales. He’s emerged in the past few games as maybe Seattle’s best player, and currently is the team’s co-leader with four assists. With a question mark hanging over who the Timbers will have at left back (Will Rodney Wallace be ruled out due to a knee injury? If so, will Jeremy Hall or Steve Purdy take his place?), it might be incumbent upon their left winger, whether Darlington Nagbe or Kalif Alhassan, to track back and shore that side up.
Second is Seattle’s star attacking player, Fredy Montero. The Colombian hasn’t been near to his best this season, though still leads the team in points with his three goals and four assists. The whole of the Emerald City is waiting for him to break out in a big way, and unless the Timbers’ centerback pairing of Eric Brunner and Futty Danso can stay tight to him on and off the ball, it just might happen on Sunday.
Finally, the lightening rod, the villain, the Darth Vader himself, Roger Levesque. In addition to being a Timbers killer—11 goals and four assists in 28 all-time games against Portland—and a general pest, he’s also playing perhaps his best soccer since the team went up to MLS in 2009. Reportedly set to start his third straight match, he has two goals and an assist in the previous three, and certainly would love nothing more than to sink Portland once again. And, just as with Montero, organization, communication, and denying him chances in front of goal will be key.
Random Stats and Facts
Sunday’s game not only marks the halfway point of the season for the Timbers, but the end of their stretch of 10 out of 14 games at home. After the Sounders, Portland plays five of their next seven away, and will be on the road for most of the back end of the season.
The Timbers still lead the league with 68 percent of their goals coming from set pieces—as compiled, and defined, by MLS stats provider Opta—whereas the Sounders just two weeks ago conceded their first goal that originated with a corner kick.
The Sounders have their best record after 20 games of their three-year MLS history. A strong reason why might be because, of their 13 most regular players, nine have been with them since the start in 2009, and three remain from their expansion draft.
- The Timbers are (in the NASL and USL eras, at least) 15-14-3 at home against Seattle all-time, though with just one home win since 2006. That came in 2008, in the game some fans might remember for Takayuki Suzuki’s laser beam of a shot past Chris Eyelander. If the Timbers can get a win or a draw, it will be their first ever season series without a loss to the Sounders, though by contrast a loss will give them their fourth without a win—the others being 1976, 1980, and, surprisingly to me, 2007.