Weeks leading into a Seattle Sounders visit to Providence Park always feel different, but for Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, the feel around Sunday’s Cascadia Cup match has stood out. “Especially this [match], there's a different energy,” Savarese said in his pregame video press conference. “[The energy] has accumulated even more so.”
Maybe that accumulation is about how the rivalry has played out over the two years. In a world of COVID-19 precautions, Portland and Seattle haven’t been able to play each other in front of a full normal-sized crowd. The last time they did so was on August 23, 2019. The teams have played five times since then, including May 9’s meeting in front of limited capacity at Providence Park.
Or maybe memories from that spring meeting are fueling Savarese’s perspective. On that day, Portland seemed to be the slightly better team over the course of an hour. They threatened to go ahead when the team earned a penalty kick early in the second half. But over the course of the few minutes that followed, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei saved Diego Valeri’s attempted conversation before Seattle's Raúl Ruidíaz converted his own attempt at the other end of the field. The sequence sent Seattle in motion to a 2-1 victory.
“We remember last time we played Seattle in our home,” Savarese explained, diverting from an answer about his team’s momentum. “We had a very, very good match. We played very well, and we probably deserved more that day. But I continue to say all the time, it’s not what you deserve.”
Over the course of his Friday media availability, Savarese shared a third reason why this runup feels different. The reason came through while talking about his team’s momentum — four points in their last two games — as well as his roster’s improving health. For the first time this season, there is a feeling that the Timbers’ are close to full strength, particularly with striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda resuming full training while goalkeeper Steve Clark nears his own injury return. Players like goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, defender Ismaila Jome and midfielder Andy Polo are still out long-term, but when it comes to a starting XI that might have resembled the Timbers' offseason hopes, Portland is getting close.
“When, from the beginning of the season, you are limited, and you cannot even have 20 players on the bench total when traveling, then finally when you have the ability to make selections … [it] is [an option] that I did not have basically the entire year …,” Savarese explained, with his team now at the midpoint of their regular season. “The fact that we have survived in accumulating so many important points — sometimes playing well, sometimes being more pragmatic — is a credit to the players, because have an opportunity now, in the second part of the season, to make a statement.”
In that sense, a derby against Seattle is coming at the perfect time. No matter the occasion, defeating the Sounders would be an important benchmark, but if that win came after a draw and a win at home — and came while getting players back from international tournaments, and recovering from a disappointing performance against LA Galaxy two weeks ago — the context becomes even more meaningful. This is how the team responded in the face of adversity, a win would say. This is how the Timbers can perform when they're close to their full selves.
“For us, [it] will be a lot better [situation] to compete, because we have choices, and I think we'll be a lot more competitive,” Savarese said. “We're looking forward to that, and this weekend, I hope we can start showing it, as well.”
Part of being “a lot better” could be the full return of the team’s most important attacker. Roughly 10 months ago, Sebastián Blanco tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a game at the Sounders. Throughout the summer, he has been building his minutes load, and last Saturday, he had his first 45-minute performance of the season.
Whether he’s in line for his first start of 2021 was in focus during Friday’s media session. Savarese said Blanco will “probably get a [few] more minutes” on Sunday, while Blanco hoped for “70 or 75 [minutes], depending on how much the coach decides.”
“To have an opportunity to [start] one of my first games [since being injured] in a game of this magnitude, in front of our fans, it makes it that much more special,” Blanco said, when asked about a possible start.
“[Sunday’s] is a special game,” he said, “like every game that we play against Seattle.”
Sunday’s game does feel a little different, though, and not only because fans will be making their full return. Their presence will undoubtedly change the feel at Providence Park. But in terms of Portland’s season, Sunday’s match is a chance to prove that the Timbers’ full team, given a week to prepare and two results’ momentum, can perform at the level they expect from themselves. It’s a chance to prove the obstacles of the season’s first four-and-a-half months have not diminished the team's potential, and that potential can be summoned when the team needs to show it.
At a minimum, Sunday’s derby will give Portland an indication of where they stand with half their regular season in the books.