View From The Inside: Much has changed

Prost Amerika's Steve Clare examines the very different Sounders side that comes to Portland

Christian Tiffert, Seattle Sounders

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

Much has changed since June 24 when the Portland Timbers beat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 at JELD-WEN Field.

The Sounders were suffering from a crisis of confidence mostly engendered by a loss of form to the hitherto quite brilliant Mauro Rosales. They also had one eye on the coming Open Cup tie, and there was a revolving door of players receiving suspensions.

Portland gave Seattle a black eye that day and another suspension to worry about, but Sounders bounced back for a memorable Open Cup 2-1 win over San Jose somewhere in North California where 21st century technology was yet to arrive.

Since then coach Sigi Schmid has more than steadied the ship. Alvaro Fernandez followed Freddie Ljungberg through the DP exit door to Chicago and the very promising Christian Tiffert arrived after his Bundesliga club Kaiserslautern were relegated. Tiffert has melded well while Rosales has recovered form. Eddie Johnson has started scoring goals like a man who has been collecting Chris Wondolowski videos.

And what of Fredy Montero—the man whose indiscipline saw him sent off that June day in Portland? He has simply been outstanding in whatever new role Schmid requires of him. The further he plays from goal, the better a player he looks.

That day Mike Gspurning was missing too. There are some diehards up north who attribute every failing in that rocky patch to the giant Austrian goalkeeper’s absence. Certainly his GAA is a testament to his calming ability although a fading memory of that period does recall that his replacements were rather less well protected by their defenses than he has been. In short, he makes other players better—which is no small achievement for a goalie.

Alex Caskey continues to improve and has a solid temperament which will be sorely tested if he sees any playing time.  His set pieces are a cut above what has been in seasons before although Tiffert too brings ammunition to an area where Sounders have often trailed behind the average, especially the Timbers who perform this aspect very well indeed.

Both clubs have something over the horizon that may play into the selections. For Portland, the Cascadia Cup is the main focus of their 2012 season but they still have a midweek game. Seattle head to San Pedro Sula after the derby where they could lock up their CONCACAF group early, turning it into a sprint rather than a marathon which incidentally is who they are playing—CD Marathon of Honduras.

Given that the final game in that group falls between the penultimate and the last match of their MLS regular season, Schmid would be a very happy man to go into it not needing a result of any kind. After Wednesday in Honduras, Sounders return home to play the San Jose Earthquakes with a shot at cutting their Supporters Shield lead in half.

Brad Evans has been a revelation on the right wing, so expect that to continue. Lastly, Osvaldo Alonso wouldn’t miss this one for all the cigars in America. The man has dominated more MLS games than any Sounder this season. Portland have to find a way to stop Alonso stopping them. He’ll have his eye on both Sal Zizzo and Darlington Nagbe, Portland’s likeliest creative outlets.

Will the final result center around the outcome of that battle? It’s a fair shout. Alonso is the one outfielder Seattle cannot do without. He’s always up for a scrap, which is the likely game-type on Saturday.

If Portland can out-scrap him, then they have a fighting chance. Don’t be surprised if both sides actually do some fighting before the day is done.

It’s a derby after all.

Steve Clare is Editor of Prost Amerika Soccer and President of the North American Soccer Reporters.