Under normal circumstances, a season’s first meeting between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC would be a long-awaited event. Players would have looked for the match when the schedules came out. One team’s fans would start planning their travel the moment a date was confirmed.
As with all things 2020, though, the weekend’s circumstances won’t be normal. Had Major League Soccer not been forced to suspend play due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland and Seattle would have had their first meeting of the season on May 17. Instead, the year’s initial derby will take place on Sunday (7pm PT, FS1) – the beginning of a six-match slate that was announced only 13 days ago.
“We know [the game] is really important,” Timbers midfielder Diego Chara said, citing the “our fans” as the first thing the most unique thing about this rivalry week. “The atmosphere in the stadium is so different with the fans.”
Multnomah County’s COVID-19 guidelines mean no fans will not be allowed at Sunday’s match. Still, “this game is a big game for us, for fans, for everyone in this club,” Chara went on to say, highlighting the importance of any Timbers game against the Sounders.
The teams’ meetings are usually national-television showcases – the type of matches that allow ESPN and FOX Sports to show atmospheres that have become part of MLS’s appeal. Constant singing and chanting. Tifo that have become supporters group a standard across the league. History that transcends a single 90 minutes, or one game’s results. Portland versus Seattle has come to mean more than a line on the schedule. Fans play a major part.
Some elements of that show will be there on Sunday. The players, of course. But the lights on Providence Park’s east side will flash when goals are scored, and Portland’s Timber Joey will be in attendance, ready to slice logs for his team’s goals and a potential shutout. As he cuts those slices, though, the seats around him will be empty, and the sounds viewers hear on FS1 will be added for effect, just as they were at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
“[The fans are] a very big part of the game,” defender Larrys Mabiala said. “Having your fans behind you, especially in a rivalry game ... This is a part we are going to miss.
“Mostly, we feel [the fans’ impact] when it is getting hard at some points of the game. You play for 90 minutes and you have some ups and downs ... When you are able to have your fans behind you, be in your stadium, it's very helpful.”
“Let's go back to last year when [Portland’s fans] were at the stadium and for 33 minutes, we didn't have the cheer that we used to,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, alluding to the Timbers’ Army protest at the onset of August 24’s visit from the Sounders. “We felt it, last year ... You can never replace the fans, especially our fans, because they are very special.”
Without the derby’s usual atmosphere, Portland’s and Seattle’s performance in Orlando provide Sunday’s main context. Coming off their tournament title, the Timbers return to the regular season with renewed expectations. The struggles of March’s uneven, 1-1-0 start have faded.
Seattle has also seen a change in perspective, albeit in the opposite direction. Whereas the Sounders began the year celebrating the club’s second MLS title, they return to play after a disappointing MLS is Back, one where they were eliminated in the Round of 16 after a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles FC.
“There's a little bit of momentum,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said, explaining his side’s half of the context. “Every time you win something, we feel like you want to get more.
“But I also recognize that a lot of the teams that were expecting to do a little bit better in MLS is Back didn't do quite as well as they would have liked. This is going to be a moment for them to show that was a fluke …”
“We really expect to see the best version of the Sounders this Sunday,” Mabiala said. “Yeah, they are the MLS Cup reigning champions, but they didn't play the way they expected in [Orlando] ... we are going to see the best version of their team.”
Form is one thing; the standings are another. There, the Sounders are still in good shape. Thanks to the four points they collected in Orlando’s group stage – points that counted toward MLS’s regular-season standings – Seattle sits fifth in the Western Conference. Only two points behind the Timbers, Seattle could leapfrog their rivals with a win at Providence Park.
“[We expect to see] a motivated team,” Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer said of Sunday’s game. “Gio’s done a really nice job, there. Congratulations to them. They’ll be in form, and we’ll have to catch up very quickly.”
“Without a doubt, they're going to be very motivated …,” Savarese said, in Spanish, at his pregame press conference. “This is a perfect game for them, because it's against their rival. They're going to have a lot of incentive to play better …
“That's [the challenge] we have. We're going to have to be ready.”