KBSR, Timbers @ Seattle, 7.21.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | The best rivalry in MLS returns on Sunday

Even before Thursday's kickoff, Sunday's game was on fan's minds. You saw it in the questions, asked Tuesday and Wednesday, about who Giovanni Savarese would start. It was in the reactions to the announced XI, and in the worries about whether Thursday's starters could recover.

That's one way you know a derby is coming. The Portland Timbers could, on a Wednesday, be hosting a rematch of last year's MLS Cup final against Atlanta United FC, but if a game with Seattle Sounders FC loomed, thoughts would skip forward on the calendar. Any decision made mid-week would be cast in terms of its effect on Seattle. What's a rival for, after all, if you're not trying to make their life horrible?

Portland and Seattle have already met once this season, but given the predictability of being drawn in U.S. Open Cup, you could forgive some people for taking a "yeah, of course" approach to that one. Sunday's match, though, has been on the calendar since before the year began. Fans have been able to point to it from day one, know it's a game both teams would target, and think to themselves, "that's our next chance at them." Open Cup may have meant the actual "next chance" came sooner, but Sunday's match is truly where the rivalry returns.

Seattle enters the latest derby in second place in MLS' Western Conference. As for the Timbers, they sit four points out of a playoff spot, hoping to close the gap during their 16th of 17 road games this season.

Here is this week's KeyBank Scouting Report – three keys to Sunday's match at CenturyLink Field (6:30pm PT, FS1):

The quick turnaround

Let's take a moment to define our terms, because we've been talking about short rest too often. What, exactly, do we mean by short rest, and how often have the Timbers faced it?

Let's decide, now, that short rest is anything fewer than four days between games. Four days would be the time off you have between a Sunday game and a Friday return, and while that's not normal, nobody would cry for a team that had to manage that schedule. (Perhaps they would if travel was involved, but let's keep things simple.)

By that standard, the Timbers have only played on short rest five times this year. Sunday will be the sixth. The Sounders, as a point of comparison, have already dealt with short rest six times this season. Same for Los Angeles FC. Come Sunday in Seattle, Portland will merely be caught up with their Western Conference targets when it comes to quick turnarounds.

The issue for the Timbers is less the quantity than the timing. Whereas Los Angeles and Seattle have had their short rests sprinkled back into spring's part in the schedule, every Portland turnaround has happened within the last month. Between June 19 and July 21, the Timbers will have played nine times, with two separate trips to the Eastern Time Zone mixed in. For slightly over a month, they will have averaged a game every 3.67 days.

It sounds daunting, but the issue for Sunday's game is less the accumulation than the demand. If you have three days between games, you might be able to have one semi-normal training session. Might. On two days rest, you're doing recovery after one game while being cognizant not to tax your players before the next. Physically, it can be managed, especially when travel is short. All other aspects of preparation, though, have to suffer.

Recapturing momentum

This time last week, the Timbers were returning home from an Open Cup triumph, which came on the back of triumph at Yankee Stadium. Double triumph! On the road! Against what the points-per-game columns said were the best teams in each conference! Smooth sailing under clear skies going forward, right?

Ummm … that's, like, not what sports is, usually. As any rightly paranoid fan knows, each point of unforeseen fortune is destined to be offset by a misstep – a type of first law of thermodynamics, but for something much more important: soccer. If you experience 180 minutes of redefining positivity, the universe achieves balance by handing you the same amount of undermining reproach. It's equal, but it's opposite.

Hence the frustration of a draw against Colorado, something fans had every reason to believe was a one-off. But that law. That first law. It meant more frustration was coming. Hence the draw against Orlando.

At this point, the Timbers are back to neutral. The science tells us as much. But it also tells us that the momentum the team carried back from its New York City win and Banc of California success has been usurped. Unable to rewrite the universe's laws, Portland head to Seattle without its momentum. 

The best rivalry in MLS 

If you've heard a universal snicker coming from the northwest corner to the U.S. soccer map, it's likely Cascadia's collective fanbase reacting to the hype around El Trafico. Such is the branding that's been applied to the long, historic rivalry between the LA Galaxy and the city's other team, one that's played competitively for 17 months. That's not to say there can't be genuine antipathy between Los Angeles FC and the team they're overshadowing. The hype's just a little much.

At the same time, MLS did this to Seattle and Portland once, too. When the Timbers joined Major League Soccer in 2011, fans outside of Cascadia had to deal with every national broadcast and website telling them this is what soccer in the U.S. should be; this is the future of the league. This is what you've been missing all along (such a shame you never realized, too). Much like immediately branding LAFC-Galaxy as an epic rivalry, the Portland-Seattle issue wasn't about right and wrong. It was about the relentless, redundant, oppressiveness of its tone.

The weight of that press gives us a nice opportunity to note, though: There really is no legitimate question as to which rivalry is MLS' soccer's best, no matter how you define it. Not that such things matter much, but if they do to you, consider legacy. Seattle-Portland goes back to the mid-1970s ... in soccer. In real life? Woof. It's practically eternal.

Competitive relevance? It's been over four years since another Western Conference team made MLS Cup. Portland, then Seattle. Seattle, then Portland. Both teams have MLS' ultimate prize in their trophy cases. Both teams have claimed it during the last four seasons.

As for more recency? Heaven help the fan that's already forgotten last year's Western Conference semifinals, because it was as close a matchup as you could have imagined. And stakes? Add Vancouver Whitecaps FC to the mix, and ask each fanbase how much they cherish their time with the Cascadia Cup.

It's not even close, especially when you consider the state of the teams right now. The Sounders have just navigated a month defined by player absences to persist in second in the Western Conference. And as the post-Brian Fernandez Timbers have shown, Portland's upside might make them the league's greatest threat to an LAFC title.

Oh, about LAFC: We should all be enjoying El Trafico; at least, we should watch it when it's not competing with the Thorns. MLS is going to be a far better place as matchups like LAFC-Galaxy, NYCFC-Red Bulls capture more imaginations. As fans in Cascadia who have had to endure a decade of late-morning and early-afternoon kickoffs know, these games bring the national television crews out. In the big picture, the externalities are worth it.

The hype, though, is way too much. It always is. At some point between Friday's final whistle and Sunday's kickoff, at least acknowledge where rivalry's defined in Major League Soccer. At least give us a hint, some small hint, that you know.

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