Major League Soccer’s choice to limit travel distance in the face of COVID-19 has meant regional rivals facing each other more than usual. For the league’s most famous rivalry, the Portland Timbers’ with Seattle Sounders FC, that led three meetings in 31 days, a stretch that began at Providence Park on August 23 and will culminate on Wednesday in Goose Hollow (7pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)).
“When you look at how Seattle is playing, obviously it is a team that we respect and a team that has had a lot of success,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said, describing an opponent that sits on top of MLS’s Western Conference. “But we have to believe in what we're able to do.
“The fact that it is a rivalry game, sometimes it might not be the perfect tactical game from either side. But we just need to be ready to fight for the whole game and make sure that, however the ball gets across the line, we get it across the line, we defend as well as we have in the past, and we go from there.”
The teams’ recent trilogy started poorly for the Timbers, who returned from their title at the MLS is Back Tournament to a 3-0 loss against the Sounders at home. September 6’s rematch in Seattle offered Portland slight redemption, with the Timbers winning 2-1 at CenturyLink Field.
Now, Portland will have another chance to defend home field, but does the frequency of these games water down the rivalry’s feel?
“No, it really doesn't,” was Ebobisse’s response. “Because unless you're winning every single time, there's always something left to be desired.”
Neither team is coming close to that standard. Since Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese was hired before the 2018 season, Portland and Seattle have faced each other 11 times. Portland has won seven of those games, with one of the losses – a 3-2, second-leg defeat in the 2018 Western Conference semifinals – leaving the Timbers celebrating as they left CenturyLink. While the record books say Portland lost, the aggregate score over two legs, as well as that night’s penalty-shootout win, meant Seattle’s season was over.
That loss won’t be part of Wednesday’s motivation. Instead, it will be the loss Seattle handed Portland last month – a reminder that MLS is Back’s success would not automatically translate to the regular season.
“Last time [the Sounders] came into Providence Park, beat us 3-0,” Ebobisse explained, “and it started a run of games that, if we all look back on [it], we know we should have done better.
“They took a little bit of pride out of us after a successful summer. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I know the rest of my teammates'.”
“The guys understand the importance of this game,” Savarese said, “especially that we're going to play this team back again in our home. We're excited about playing them at this particular time, and we can't wait to step on the field and perform.”
During Portland’s Monday media availability, it became clear that “the field” part of Savarese’s sentiment was particularly important. “We want to make sure that we make Providence Park a fortress again,” is Savarese’s goal.
“It's been something that we're not happy with,” he said, when asked about August’s 3-0 loss, adding the displeasure is about, “the fact that we haven't been able to win in the last two matches at home against them. I'm sure it's the same feeling that they have: that they haven't been able to beat us in their field for the last few matches. We want to make sure that this one, not only we get three points, but that we put in a very good performance.”
And as far as the idea of the rivalry being watered down by the schedule? Put Savarese in Ebobisse’s camp on that one.
“It never gets old,” he said. “Jebo is right. We're always excited to play this game … The fact that it is home, it makes it twice as exciting, because we want to make sure that we get a good result – something we haven't done in two previous matches.”