Sal Zizzo, Timbers vs. Sounders, 6.24.12
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Strong's Notes: Throwing Out The Record Books

For the second time in 2012, and the 65th time in their professional histories, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will lineup opposite one another on Saturday afternoon at JELD-WEN Field (12:30pm PT, NBC, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940, presented by adidas). The game will have a tinge of history about it: not just a milestone reached in the series, but it will also mark the first MLS game carried on broadcast television since 2008, as NBC’s cameras will beam the action, color, and emotion over-the-air nation wide. Quite a—deserved—stage for The Great American Soccer Rivalry.

Gleefully Throwing Out Those Record Books
The Seattle Sounders, simply put, are one of the best teams in MLS this season, and especially at the moment; interestingly, they can look back at the last time they were in the Rose City as the bookend for their current run. After the 2-1 loss on June 24th, which was a team record seventh match without a win, the Sounders sat in fourth place in the Western Conference, and were at a self-admitted crossroads of the season. Since that day, they’ve lost just one of their 11 league games—one loss in 16 in all competitions, counting their US Open Cup Final shootout defeat as a draw—and have shot up to second in the West, just six points off the Supporters’ Shield lead.

Preview: Timbers geared up for Seattle

Why the dramatic change? In part, Seattle got healthy: goalkeeper Michael Gspurning missed the game in June as part of two-and-a-half months away with a hip injury; Swedish international right back Adam Johansson sat almost a month with a hamstring strain; left back Leo Gonzalez, who coach Sigi Schmid says is one of the best at his position in the league, missed a long stretch with a quad strain.

Then, of course, there’s Steve Zakuani: the team’s co-leading scorer in 2010 was out 15 months with a double leg break, returning briefly in July, but has returned to start the last two league matches, showing off his trademark speed setting up Mauro Rosales’ goal in their recent 1-1 draw at Dallas. Add in the recently-signed Mario Martinez—a Honduran international—and former German Bundesliga assist-leader Christian Tiffert, and it’s a stacked midfield that comes to town in rave green this weekend.

Flood of Goals
And despite the deserved attention of late on the Sounders’ strike force, that midfield has been a big key in the last month or so of success. In their first 18 games this season, Seattle’s midfield accounted for exactly one goal in the run of play; in the eight games before last weekend’s comeback win over Chivas USA, they’d seen six different midfielders contribute seven goals.

That’s a nice changeup, and the diversity of goalscorers is key for any team, but it just helps to draw that tiniest bit of attention away from what’s really been pushing this team forward, so to speak: the forward tandem of Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson. Montero is the proverbial Devil You Know, the team’s all-time MLS leading scorer, and a contributor of key assists as much as key goals. What’s really taken Seattle by storm of late is Eddie Johnson.

Despite howls of disdain when they traded away two fan favorites—including now-Timber Mike Fucito—to Montreal for his rights, Johnson’s double last weekend gave him a new single-season Seattle record with 13 goals, and prompted the inevitable questions about whether a return to the US National Team is on the cards. For Saturday, it’s as much about denying service in as it is keeping him closely marked: Johnson’s nine headed goals leads the league, and the team expects to have league assist leader Mauro Rosales back this weekend from a quad injury.

It’s Portland-Seattle
That’s a lot of electronic ink spilled, and for good reason, on the danger posed by this Sounders team that comes to town Saturday afternoon. But, as with any rivalry game, only so much of it may matter: despite the Sounders’ swoon entering the game in June, it’s not like the Timbers had been setting the world alight in previous games either. Rather, it was more down to who played better on the day; who executed, fought, and crucially, stayed composed for the whole 90 minutes.

What we saw as well was that it really is about the whole 90 minutes in a game like this; despite a superb first half hour that netted Portland a 2-0 lead that could have even been more, it was hang-on-for-dear-life time by the end, as the Sounders roared back in the second half. With nothing less than the Cascadia Cup itself on the line, there’s not much to overstate about the potential significance of this game, and that’s a good thing. It’s good motivation, it’s a good reward for the victor, and, almost certainly, a good show for the National Broadcasting Company cameras.