Strong's Notes: Since Our Last Episode…
Whether it seems like a while ago, or just yesterday, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will renew hostilities on Sunday just three weeks removed from their 1-1 draw in Portland (6pm PT - ESPN, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Whereas that day ended quite unsettled, with nothing really determined either way by the tie, someone will emerge as a winner on Sunday evening, either in the game itself, or with any kind of a result for Portland, with the Cascadia Cup.
Since Our Last Episode…
…not a whole ton has changed for either side. After the game in Portland, the Sounders dropped a 2-1 decision to San Jose that effectively ended their hopes to catch the Earthquakes for the Supporters’ Shield, but did feature a special milestone: Steve Zakuani scored his first MLS goal since before his horrendous injury in April of last year. Then, last weekend, the Sounders and Whitecaps played to a scoreless draw in Vancouver which saw Seattle clinch a playoff berth for a fourth straight season.
One thing that has changed from the last meeting is the Sounders form: defined as one loss in their last 11 games, their September was a bit underwhelming by their own standards, with a 1-1-3 record—though it should still be pointed out they’ve lost just twice in the last three months. To the larger point of “relative speed,” if you will, the sentiment seems to be that the Sounders know they need to be playing better soccer by the time the playoffs come around, if they’re going to make it out of the first round for a first time.
Finally Getting Healthy
Last week’s game against Vancouver marked the first time in a month that Sigi Schmid was able to field his best starting lineup, which of course is a nebulous term for any strong squad. Mauro Rosales—former MLS assist leader before getting hurt—returned from three games away with a quad strain, while Christian Tiffert—ankle injury—and Eddie Johnson—suspension—have stabilized the attacking core alongside Fredy Montero. The only potential question marks this week are Osvaldo Alonso, who’s been held out of practice with a muscle strain amid assurances he’ll be fine by Sunday, and Mario Martinez, who might leave this weekend to join Honduras for their upcoming World Cup qualifier, and who’s played just 28 minutes in the last five games anyway.
Big Game amidst a Big Home Stretch
That brings us back to the same question we asked aloud three weeks ago: we know how much this matchup, and the Cascadia Cup in particular means for the Timbers, but what about the Sounders? There’s no doubting they have bigger fish to fry in the final four games of the season, specifically jockeying for playoff seeds, even as their passage through to the CONCACAF Champions League knockout phase has been secured. So, Sunday’s game has longer term importance, momentum included; but, everyone in the Seattle camp has been unified in saying how badly they want to win the Cup—or how badly they just don’t want Portland to win it on their home field.
As they cliché goes, cometh the moment, cometh the man: Seattle’s record-breaking attacking pair of Montero and Johnson has between them scored all six goals for the Sounders in the Cascadia Cup this year, three apiece. Montero, for that matter, has seven goals in his last nine Cascadia games, though just one of those at home.
We can also say for Sunday that it’s cometh the moment, cometh the fans: at least 66,000 of them, bursting the 67,000 capacity CenturyLink Field to the seams. It will rival the largest crowds ever to see a stand-alone—i.e. not part of a doubleheader—MLS game, and will almost double the previous mark for a Seattle-Portland game. The Sounders are unbeaten in front of their largest crowds, including a 3-0 mark—with eight goals scored and just one conceded—in front of 55,000 fans or more. What better place and time then to win the Cascadia Cup, and get a first away win of the year, for the Timbers?