Sebastian Blanco #3, Timbers vs. Seattle, 11.4.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

MLS Cup Playoffs | Familiar Foes: Thursday marks Portland's sixth meeting with Seattle in 2018

There have been five meetings between Major League Soccer’s fiercest rivals this season, and from the four that have mattered, the Portland Timbers have been able to walk away happy with their underlying performances. That doesn’t mean Seattle Sounders FC has always ended up behind on the scoreboard, but going into the teams’ sixth meeting with the second leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on Thursday (7:30pm PT, FS1 | Match presented by Carl's Jr.), Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle team is still in search of a trick to pull off ahead of another meeting between the Cascadia counterparts.

This isn’t quite like what Spain experienced in the 2010-11 season, when the country’s (and, probably the world’s) biggest rivalry was staged seven times over as many months. But those derbies between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid were heightened by what was, at the time, El Real’s prolonged Champions League drought, as well as the inherent tension of professional antagonist José Mourinho trying to derail Pep Guardiola’s Catalan juggernaut.

By the time those matches were over, the world needed a break from Barça-Real, and perhaps if the Sounders and Timbers had been drawn together in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, we’d be bordering on rivalry fatigue, too. In hindsight, it’s probably for the best that Portland and Seattle were given a reprieve from their annual Open Cup engagement. Had the teams met in another competition – particularly if that meeting came in Open Cup’s latest rounds – the teams’ final meeting of 2018 would feel like overkill.

Thursday is anything but. Instead, after leg one’s 2-1 Portland win at Providence Park, all possibilities are still in play. If they turn around their one-goal deficit, the Sounders will put the specter of 2013 to bed, getting redemption for a huge point of pride Timbers fans have been able to hold since that playoff victory over their rivals. But, if the Timbers maintain 2018’s pattern, echoes of 2013 will emerge from the traveling Timbers Army, summoning ghosts of playoffs and rivalry’s past to another celebration at CenturyLink Field.

Here’s how the teams’ first five games of 2018 have transpired, with time conveniently sorting them from least to most important.

Game 1

Date: Feb. 3
Location: Kino Sports Complex; Tucson, Arizona
Competition: Mobile Mini Sun Cup
Result: Seattle 2, Portland 1

It would be misleading to pretend this, among the teams’ first action of the preseason, is a result that matters, but for fans who look at the regular Timbers-Sounders games in Arizona as their slice of Cascadia brought south, these games are events, if not necessarily competitively relevant ones. This match, at least played in two 45-minute halves (as opposed to the three 30-minute thirds the Timbers waged against the San Jose Earthquakes days before), saw two rivalry mainstays get on the scoreboard, with a potential future regular deciding the season’s first derby.

Cristian Roldan opened the Sun Cups scoring with a ninth minute goal, though Diego Valeri would respond 15 minutes later, and amid a slew of changes over the next 40 minutes, the level scoreline threatened. Ultimately, it was Homegrown attacker Handwalla Bwana who delivered a match-winner for Seattle, tilting the preseason game Seattle’s way in the 67th minute.

You could say, with the goal, the Sounders drew first blood of the season, but there’s no blood to be found in a preseason’s results. In the end, it’s kind of strange we’re even including this game on this list at all.

Game 2

Date: May 15
Location: Providence Park; Portland, Oregon
Competition: Major League Soccer Regular Season
Result: Portland 1, Seattle 0

The 100th competitive match between the Cascadia foes was also the first derby of the Giovanni Savarese era, providing an apropos contrast between Portland’s past and what the club hopes will be an arrived, prolonged future. That arrival, though, saw the Timbers in a state of transition by the time Seattle came to Goose Hollow, with the team’s three-match winning streak a welcome reprieve from the five-game, winless start the Savarese era had endured.

That start compelled the Timbers boss to rebuild his team’s play from its foundations, and although that process produced 13 goals in the next seven matches, Portland’s attack would prove to be a work in progress over the season’s opening months. Against a Sounder team that was experiencing a slow start of their own, the yield was a game of few good opportunities, with a Seattle defense that became the second-best in MLS in form from minute one at Providence Park.

In the 86th minute, though, Portland finally broke through. Running onto a Samuel Armenteros pass, weighted perfectly behind the Sounders defense, Sebastián Blanco chipped goalkeeper Stefan Frei ahead of one of the most memorable celebrations of the MLS era. Reaching behind the north end’s sign boards after his shot crossed the line, Blanco produced and adorned a Chucky mask, evoking the toy villain from the Child’s Play movies in homage to a nickname he was given in Argentina.

The 1-0 result was very early-season appropriate for both clubs. For the Sounders, it showed a stalwart defense would need help from an attack awaiting a significant arrival. And for Portland, it both showed the resilience that, over the course of a 17-game unbeaten run, became record-setting as well as the progress the team needed to make to approach their best selves.

Game 3

Date: June 30
Location: CenutryLink Field; Seattle, Washington
Competition: MLS Regular Season
Result: Portland 3, Seattle 2

The second true Seattle derby of the Savarese era would not only become the series’ most exciting of 2018 but also deliver a second piece of history, building on the victory Portland took from the teams’ centennial celebration. Having never claimed a regular-season win in MLS at CenturyLink Field, the Timbers used the occasion of their first coach’s Emerald City debut to put that factoid to bed, taking three separate leads en route to a 3-2 win over the still-struggling Sounders.

Larrys Mabiala would score twice off corners, while Armenteros’ second-half goal added the one touch Portland needed to convert off a perfect counter-attack feed from Valeri’s boots. Interspersed, Seattle threatened to give their start a new direction, with goals from Víctor Rodríguez and Chad Marshall seeing the Timbers concede multiple scores for only the second time in 11 matches.

That the Timbers won at all, though, proved the match’s main takeaway. It was result 12 of 17 in an unbeaten streak that would extend over half of Portland’s season. For the Sounders, the game became a wake-up call, with Seattle three months before experiencing their next loss.

Game 4

Date: August 26
Location: Providence Park
Competition: MLS Regular Season
Result: Seattle 1, Portland 0

Within that three months came the teams’ final regular-season meeting, one in which the resourcefulness and resilience that’s guided the Sounders to consecutive MLS Cup finals salvaged three points out of what was otherwise Portland’s day. Outshooting their guests 22-6, the Timbers were persistently on the verge of claiming the game’s first goal, though as recent years have shown, persistence is rarely enough in the face of Frei, Marshall and the rest of the Sounders.

So it was that Seattle found itself still on even footing in the match’s 76th minute while Portland tried to get an injured Blanco off the field. During that time, as the Timbers left winger endured, the Sounders attacked down his flank, eventually springing right-center back Kim Kee-Hee past Andy Polo and Zarek Valentin, into a position to cross near the goal line.

After the match, there was perhaps not enough empathy for Julio Cascante, whose name ended up on the scoresheet in Seattle’s column. Kim was able to drive the type of ball into the six-yard box which, wrong-footing the Costa Rican defender, is always difficult to defend. Within 20 minutes, though, that own goal moment of difficulty was all that separated the two teams, leaving Portland’s strongest performance of 2018 against their rivals as the only one that ended in a loss.

Game 5

Date: November 4, 2018
Location: Providence Park
Competition: Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals, Leg 1
Result: Portland 2, Seattle 1

The memory of Seattle’s 2016 and 2017 postseasons forced everybody to consider whether the Timbers’ 2018 success against their rivals had any predictive power. Turns out, it did. Sunday’s game fits neatly into an arc that’s formed since the beginning of the regular season.

Sunday’s first 10 minutes, though, hinted things would be different, with Seattle enjoying their best spell against the Timbers this season. Perhaps Roldan’s early injury changed that, or maybe it was Marshall’s, but after the Sounders’ opening goal, something changed. Ultimately, the evolution the Timbers have experienced over Savarese’s first season – one that’s gone from refocus to reemergence over the last eight months – defined the match’s final 80 minutes.

Jeremy Ebobisse’s goal showed as much, as did Blanco’s game-winner that followed. The various counterattacks Portland ventured on as full time approached helped maintain the Timbers’ danger, and in the way the team adjusted in the face of Seattle’s post-halftime improvements, there was a maturity reflecting a settled, confident squad.

That a third goal never came, however, helped keep the series alive, and in their early, away goal, the Sounders have themselves a reason to be optimistic ahead of a return leg at home.

Game 6

Date: November 8, 2018
Location: CenturyLink Field
Competition: Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals, Leg 2
Result: To be determined

It’s not Barcelona-Real Madrid, nor does it, ahead of the rivalry’s sixth iteration this year, carry the same level of fatigue that befell El Clasico seven years ago. Instead, MLS’ best rivalry has maintained its edge ahead of its winner-take-all-moment.

Whether Portland finishes the job or Seattle reverses the dynamic’s 2018 course, the result will, like the meeting in 2013, carry huge implications. Not only will one team’s season endure, but bragging rights, in a supreme sense, will belong to one rival.

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