April 4th, 2014 | by ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT News | Posted In: Sports

Timbers Preview: Portland vs. Seattle Sounders

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The Portland Timbers’ successful 2013 season was made all the sweeter for the team’s fans by the fact that it came so ostentatiously at the expense of the Seattle Sounders. The Timbers trounced their bitterest rival in the 2013 playoffs, the high point of the season.

Portland always feels like the underdog against Seattle, with its bigger supply of money, its larger stadium and bigger crowds. Those advantages give Portland fans an extra reason to savor successes over their Northern rivals.

Based on the results so far this year, that success for the winless Timbers (0-2-2, 2 points) seems difficult to imagine.

The Sounders (2-2-0, 6 points) come to Providence Park Saturday at noon with signs of early success. Seattle’s front office made some smart moves in bringing in a half dozen players (including former Timber striker Kenny Cooper) who are clearly helping the team.

The Sounders haven’t looked yet this season like they know exactly how they want to play yet. Stylistic confusion has been a problem since last season, when the signing of US national team captain Clint Dempsey appeared to disrupt their rhythm.

Despite the uncertainty about how they want to play, the Sounders have looked comfortable this season, relying on the pace and power of defender DeAndre Yedlin to attack up the right and the aerial power of their center backs on corners. A style can come later. For now there is promise. (Portland got lucky this week when its own attacking defender, Michael Harrington, saw his red card against FC Dallas on March 29 reversed on appeal, allowing him to play in the Seattle match.)

If the Sounders look like they have everything but a sense of identity, identity and spirit look like being all Portland has so far this season.

The Timbers have seen two draws snatched from the jaws of defeat in the dying seconds at home, and two losses away. One of the biggest challenges for the Timbers on Saturday is in goal. Backup keeper Andrew Weber has yet to proven himself while trying to fill in veteran Donovan Ricketts, out on a two-game suspension for a red-card foul against Colorado March 22.

As long as Caleb Porter is coach, the Timbers will always focus on winning games by keeping possession of the ball and creating goal-scoring chances through quick combination plays and sudden, defense-splitting passes.

This season, though, with forwards Maxi Urruti and Gaston Fernandez replacing the traded Ryan Johnson and injured Rodney Wallace in the starting lineup, the Timbers rely purely on tricky passing triangles to penetrate the opposition. Gone are options who can offer pure physicality to complement that approach.

The chief contrast between the teams on Saturday will be in the center of their midfields. Oswaldo Alonso will start for Seattle alongside Gonzalo Pineda, Brad Evans or Michael Azira. Alonso sets the tempo with his calm passing, but is more a destroyer of opponents’ moves than a creator. The other three are all energetic players equally comfortable playing at fullback.

On the opposite side of the field, Will Johnson and Diego Chara are more artistic. Unlike most MLS central midfielders, both are adept at moving the ball through congested areas and skipping around opponents with the ball. Seattle’s midfielders don’t have the same sure-footedness.

Matches between fierce nearby rivals — known as derbies — are renowned for their unpredictability. Games with as much emotional stake as this one are as much a test of nerve as of ability.

A derby atmosphere can squeeze errors out of players, and that could be a boon for Portland. Between integrating two new defensive starters this year and the uncertainty surrounding how, exactly, the team wants to play, Seattle’s players have made an unusually high number of mistakes so far. Portland’s front four of Fernandez, Urruti, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, meanwhile, are all excellent at winning fouls and dribbling past opponents — meaning they could be the perfect team to coax more errors out of the Seattle defense.
 
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