PORTLAND, Ore. – The only way last week’s lessons become valuable is if you apply them, and do so as soon as possible.
That’s one way the Portland Timbers can turn the corner on what happened on Sunday. Though there was a chastening aspect to Atlanta United FC’s 2-0 victory at Providence Park, Portland didn’t play poorly; they just didn’t match the level of last year’s champions. In mid-August, that’s fine – it’s not the worst place to be. Now, the team knows where they need to get to.
With only nine games left in the regular season, the progression needs to start now; not so much to make up the five-point gap between the Timbers and second-place Minnesota United FC, but to make sure the team doesn’t run out of time before the postseason, when then games will really count. Given the level we’ve seen in road wins against the Philadelphia Union, New York City FC, Los Angeles FC, and this week’s opponent, the Seattle Sounders FC, we know Portland can’t be far off. But after seeing the composure Atlanta used to take three points from Providence Park, the Timbers have to strive for that level.
That path begins on Friday, where a different goal will be in sight, in the short term. When Portland and Seattle kickoff, this year’s Cascadia Cup will be in the balance (MLS Heineken Rivalry Week, 7pm PT, ESPN).
Here are three areas of focus ahead of the best derby in Major League Soccer – this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
Chippy, and not just because they say so
Every announcer could use the same script during their pregame shows, talking about how the things derby viewers are about to see are about more than soccer. It’s regional, historical, cultural – maybe even personal – and it’s bound to get “chippy” on the field.
The Timbers and Sounders made good on all those promises during the teams’ last meeting on July 21, with six yellow cards complementing confrontations between Portland’s Brian Fernandez and Seattle’s Roman Torres, Fernandez and Sounders defender Kim Kee-Hee, as well as Torres’ post-game charge toward goalkeeper Steve Clark’s end of the field. Even both team’s certified Good Guys, midfielders Diego Chara and Cristian Roldan, went face-to-face in the match’s late moments, with Chara eventually inflicting a yellow-card drawing (and suspension-earning, on accumulation) challenge. Portland may have won, 2-1, but after the whistle, there was a fight over the last word.
Perhaps, like the scripts say, all derbies are like that, but with just over a month having passed since the teams’ last meeting, some of the animosity is bound to carry over. If all games between rivals are chippy, Friday’s may be chippier than usual.
Seattle defensive woes
Talk Timbers host Tom Kolker deserves credit for this one; at least, he deserved credit for relaying it to me, as it may have been widely known before. Having conceded 39 times in 26 games this season, the Sounders have already eclipsed their 2018 total for goals allowed. In 2018, last year’s second-place finisher in the Western Conference’s regular season only conceded 37 times in 34 rounds.
Part of that is the loss of Chad Marshall, who arguably crafted the best career of any defender in MLS history before electing to retire earlier this season after a knee injury; part of that may be the loss of Román Torres, whose suspension after a failed drug test will leave him out of action until late in the season; and part of that may be the loss of Osvaldo Alonso, a midfielder who, now playing with Minnesota, was a mainstay in the Sounders’ midfield since their MLS arrival. There’s also the possibility that, beyond personnel, the defense just flat out hasn’t executed as well.
That’s not the kind of profile you want to carry into Providence Park. Reinforced by the signing of Fernandez, and seeing the emergences of Jeremy Ebobisse and Marvin Loría enhance their depth, Portland has built on the virtues of Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco to produce a team that’s averaging 2.22 goals per game during their nine home matches, this season. Only Los Angeles FC (3.17) has been more prolific at home, and only the Colorado Rapids can join Portland and LAFC as Western Conference teams averaging at least two goals per game at home.
And, of course, the Timbers have already scored twice against the Sounders this year; twice, in fact, if you count the teams meeting in U.S. Open Cup. If that’s what Portland was capable of on the road, there’s reason to expect even more as the Timbers get their rivals at Providence Park.
Cascadia Cup in the balance
You don’t get this close to silverware without expecting a title. It could be MLS Cup, Open Cup, or a regional honor. When you’re this close to claiming something that matters, you expect to finish the job.
By “this close,” we mean only needing a draw. A win could be even better – the Timbers would vault the Sounders in MLS’ standings, if they take all three points – but at home, needing any result, having already beaten Seattle twice this season, Portland should expect nothing less than their fifth Cascadia Cup.
Within the context of their season, though, Portland also needs to rebound. Last week’s loss against Atlanta can be seen as a manageable blip, as long as it doesn’t carry over into another result. Particularly at home – particularly at a time when the Timbers needs to be climbing the Western Conference standings – Portland has to finish off this Cascadia Cup run.