The Portland Timbers' (7-15-9, 30 pts.) game against the Seattle Sounders (13-7-10, 49 pts.) on Sunday at 6 pm, is likely the the single most important match the team plays this year.
An early scoring drought dimmed the Timbers' chances to make the Western Conference playoffs. A long losing jag at midseason—and the team's embarrassing 1-0 loss to an amateur outfit, Cal FC—may have cost the Timbers' original coach, John Spencer, his job.
But there is one prize that the Timbers can still win this year: the Cascadia Cup, a pride-of-place rivalry competition among the the Vancouver Whitecaps (11-12-9, 42 pts.), the Sounders and the Timbers. The cup is granted to the team with the best record against the other two teams over the course of a season. In essence, it's scored as if the three Pacific Northwest are in a league of their own.
Despite the fact that Portland is second from the bottom in the conference rankings—while Vancouver and Seattle are both expected to squeak into the playoffs—Portland holds a commanding lead in the Cascadia Cup, thanks to home wins against both Vancouver and Seattle, the Timber's most hated rivals.
There's only one catch: both remaining games in the Cup, against both Seattle and Vancouver, are on the road, and Portland is the only team in the league that has yet to win a single game on the road this year.
A tie or a win against Seattle on Sunday will win the Cascadia Cup for Portland; a loss will likely mean that Portland will have to pull off its first road victory of the season against the Whitecaps to keep Seattle from taking the Cup.
With at least one score likely against a Portland squad on the road, Portland will likely need to score two goals to pull off a win or tie and clinch a Cup—something they've been able to do four times in the last 10 games.
It's difficult to call Portland's recent improved upfield performance an offensive resurgence. But following General manager and interim coach Gavin Wilkinson's decision to bench forward Kris Boyd, midfielder Darlington Nagbe, forward Danny Mwanga and forward Bright Dike have all stepped up with late-season scoring.
With defender Hanyer Mosquera likely out of the game, and defender Kosuke Kimura's play still suspect, the key matchup to watch will likely be central defender David Horst and Seattle forward Eddie Johnson. The two have had a contentious history, and Johnson has had excellent luck scoring against Portland in the past two games.