PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers are coming off their first three wins of the 2018 campaign, and having climbed into a tie for sixth in the Western Conference, the team can afford to look at their broader, more ambitious objectives for the Major League Soccer season.
They can look at those next week, at least. As of the final whistle Saturday night in San Jose where the Timbers came away 1-0 victors, a single point of focus became dominant on the Timbers’ horizon: Sunday’s match against the Seattle Sounders FC (1pm PT, ESPN).
“We’ve been building exactly for these type of matches,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked about his team’s preparedness for Sunday’s derby. “Once you build the mentality, once you build the group that wants to play together, we go (into each game) with an idea. But the important thing is, throughout the match, the guys have to be mature and be able to achieve a good result.”
Over the last three games, Portland have done that, outscoring their opponents 7-2 while keeping a clean sheet over their last 189 minutes. While that form wasn’t completely out of Timbers’ minds, the occasion of Portland’s 100th all-time meeting with Seattle was at the forefront when team returned to training on Tuesday.
“Every game against them is great,” Liam Ridgewell said. “The fans get up for it, which makes us (get up for it) even more.
“It’s a game you look forward to. When you see the fixture list come out, it’s one we look forward to, (and we’re) looking forward to it on Sunday.”
For Savarese, it will be the first time he’s taken part in the rivalry, having been appointed Timbers coach only five months ago. Having followed the league for its entirety, though – as a player, youth coach, director and broadcaster – he knows the rivalry’s significance.
“I’m lucky to be part of it. I know what it represents,” he said, at his weekly press conference. “For me to have the fortune to be here in this moment, in this game, I feel like a lucky person.
“I understand the importance of the match. I understand the importance for the fans. I understand the importance for the season. That’s why I’m excited for this weekend, to watch our fans, our players be at home for a very difficult match.”
On the surface, that difficulty is offset by a Seattle team that has struggled over its season’s first seven games. With five points, the defending Western Conference champions are tied for the worst mark in MLS, while their five goals scored are three less than the league’s next-worst attack.
Savarese knows Seattle’s record, but he also knows this is the same Sounders core that’s made it to two MLS Cup finals in a row, leaving him wary of reading too much into his rivals’ first seven results.
“This is a very dangerous game, for us, because they’re coming here with this rivalry but also looking for three points that they need,” he explained. “That makes them more dangerous.
“They have good players, have a good squad to be able to come here and give us a difficult time. That’s why, besides us having a plan, we have to make sure the mentality is very high and strong in this game, to make sure that we get a result.”
If there’s one team that’s proven slow starts don’t matter, it’s Seattle. The Sounders have gotten off to slow starts in each of the last two MLS seasons, finding themselves near the bottom of the West’s standings as spring came to a close. Both times they rebounded; both times, they made deep playoff runs.
Last June, a dramatic 2-2 draw at Providence Park helped that turnaround, with Clint Dempsey forging a stoppage-time equalizer to snare a point for a 10-man Seattle. The result would prove the second in a 13-game unbeaten run, with the Sounders finishing even on points with Portland at the top of the Western Conference.
“It always boils over at some point,” Ridgewell said, of their rivalry’s physicality. “Some little niggle, something happens over something stupid, or something big.
“With the fans’ (intensity toward the) rivalry, it goes down to the players. Yeah, we treat it like another game, and you keep a cool head as much as you can, but you want to win the game. You want to do well. With us being at home, you want to try and push the game and win the game, as well.”
For Diego Valeri, no matter the intensity of the rivalry, the “win” part has to stay in focus.
“It’s great to be part of the history of this club, and of this rivalry,” Valeri said, when asked about the 100th match, “but it’s just extra. We need to be focused on our performance and try to win the game, because that’s [what matters,] at the end.”