SEATTLE, Wash. – Major League Soccer matches rarely fit nicely in this space’s weekly, three-points analysis, but over the course of a regular season, brevity is often a preview’s. A 34-match campaign can feel attritional, making bullet points more virtuous than usual. When it comes to a brief on the coming opposition, get in, get out, so we can all move on to the soccer.
This week, however, there’s more to cover than most, because in addition to the on-field matchups that will define the Portland Timbers’ latest visit to Seattle Sounders FC in Thursday's Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals second leg (7:30pm PT, FS1 | Match presented by Carl's Jr.), there is the historic context of the teams’ rivalry, as well as implications of the MLS postseason. As was the case five years ago, when the teams met for the first time in MLS’ playoffs, this series looms as a potential rivalry-changing moment, putting an accent on the last 40-plus years of Cascadia soccer. Undisputed bragging rights are at stake, with Portland fans having held their 2013 triumph over Sounder heads every single Seattle was ousted from that postseason.
Add to that both teams’ status as legitimate title contenders. That may not seem like a bold claim, considering there are only eight teams standing, as of now, in the MLS postseason, but given the talents of both Portland and Seattle – given each club having recently claimed an MLS Cup – a place in MLS’ last four will leave a talented team one good run away from claiming second star. There’s no matchup left in the bracket where, should Portland or Seattle claim it, the MLS world would react with shock.
As always, this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report digs into three aspects that will influence the next result, but when these teams meet in the playoffs, three points can’t do the matchup justice. Consider this the three we could get to, and spend the hours before kickoff thinking of the other ways Thursday match could turn.
1. The realities of 2-1
A team comes to town having won 14 of 16, and you pull out a victory. That, alone, is an accomplishment.
The reality of MLS’ playoff format, though, means that a 2-1 edge only slightly moves the needle. Perhaps the Timbers should be considered favorites to advance to the Western Conference finals, at this point, but much of that status is owed to the calendar-long history between the teams. It’s less that Nov. 4 showed Portland has advantages over Seattle. It’s more that Nov. 4 affirmed what we knew from May 13, June 30 and Aug. 26.
That knowledge hints that, whether the Timbers are a better team than the Sounders in a broad sense, they match up very well with their Cascadian counterparts. If anything, given the likely absences of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall, those edges may swing slightly further in Portland’s favor. But the gap between these two teams has never been huge, and if Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer can summon the same magic that guided his team to the last two finals, the away goal Seattle snared in Portland could prove crucial.
2. Larrys Mabiala returns
Not only is the Timbers’ defensive bedrock back after his one-game suspension, but he’ll take the field at a place where, earlier this season, his unlikely brace led to Timbers to their first regular-season MLS victory in Seattle.
But that’s not all. In a game where the set-piece threat he provides looms large, Seattle will be without their best set-piece defender, Marshall. In addition, while most of Thursday’s main figures will be playing their second game in five days, Mabiala’s red card last Wednesday in Dallas gave him seven days’ rest between turns in Portland’s XI.
Having also been rested for the team’s season finale in Vancouver, Mabiala has played one game since Oct. 21 and, thanks to a late-season international break, two games since Oct. 6. Last week’s red card left Portland vulnerable, but thanks to the play of Mabiala’s replacement, Bill Tuiloma, it may have given the 31-year-old some valuable time off.
3. The choices without Guzmán
Now, it may be David Guzmán’s time to sit out. The Costa Rican international left Sunday’s game in the 50th minute, with Savarese confirming on Tuesday that the club was still evaluating head and leg injuries ahead of Thursday’s kickoff. Though it’s unclear, as of this writing, whether Guzmán will partner Diego Chara in Portland’s central midfield, the Timbers staff will still have to consider their options.
Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to having a first-choice midfield emerge over the season’s final month are parts becoming more indispensable. The Timbers don’t lack for depth in Guzmán’s position – Lawrence Olum, Cristhian Paredes, Andrés Flores, and Tuiloma have all played the position, this season – but for the skills that the Costa Rican international brings, as well as his pairing with Chara, the Timbers’ bench doesn't offer any like-for-like, plug-and-play options. Normally, that would just mean adjusting the team’s approach, but right now, the Timbers’ approach is working so well.
If you lose a goalkeeper, you pretty much just slide the next guy in. He has strengths and weaknesses the staff needs to be aware for those, but for the most part, the switch won’t change the team’s approach. The same goes for center backs, most full backs, wingers and some defensive midfielders. Absolutely, every player brings something new to lineup, but for a lot of positions, those characteristics won’t change the tactical or stylistic outlook.
Perhaps that holds true for Guzmán, too. Maybe the Timbers staff feels Olum, or Tuiloma, or Parades or Flores can step in an do an identical job. But over the last month of the season, we saw why Guzmán had reemerged as the team’s starter. That play also showed how difficult it may be to find a similar partner for Chara.