With all of the hype surrounding the promised atmosphere and history between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers ahead of Saturday's first-ever MLS meeting between the clubs, the game itself has at times felt somewhat secondary. That's at least a bit understandable, but it's also unfortunate. Because while these two teams play very different styles, they contrast in such a way that the game between them promises to be an interesting affair from a tactical standpoint and while there's little doubt that the off-field spectacle at Qwest Field will live up to expectations, what happens on the field could prove to be quite entertaining as well. The Sounders have to be considered favorites, both due to an edge in talent (though less pronounced than it might have appeared coming into the season) and the inability of Portland to bring their dominant home form with them on the road. The Timbers have shown that they can hang with the best MLS has to offer but they've yet to do so outside of Jeld-Wen Field. Will this be the game that they begin to put to rest doubts about their ability to make some noise in this league? We'll have to wait until Saturday to find out for sure, but Portland fans have some very legitimate reasons to be optimistic.
Seattle entered the year with an attack that figured to revolve around a big, strong center forward in Blaise Nkufo, depending on the veteran striker to win balls, hold up play,create havoc in the center of the opposition's central defense, opening up space for Fredy Montero to create and drawing defenders towards him so Steve Zakuani could use his speed to make lethal, cutting runs into the box. Needless to say, things have changed quite a bit for the Sounders; Nkufo last donned the rave green during the Cascadia Summit, his replacement O'Brian White is out for foreseeable future and Steve Zakuani's explosiveness on the left flank has been lost for the majority of the season at the very least. This has forced Seattle to play an attacking style more dependent upon possession, space and long-range efforts than quick bursts of pressure, with mixed results. Seattle looked as good as they ever have in a 3-0 win over Toronto at home only to turn around and put together their worst performance of the season just three days later against DC United. While a point against Columbus was a decent result and the defense performed quite well, aside from the first 15 minutes of the game Seattle did very little to trouble the Crew's back line.
Without a pure winger in the squad, Seattle has been doing a great deal more of their attacking through the middle. That's not an inherently bad thing, but when things have bottlenecked a bit due to tactical adjustments by the opposition we've seen the full backs pushing forward a great deal to provide width. Against Toronto it was a revelation, but against DC United it was a disaster. James Riley and Tyson Wahl were both caught out on the break time and again, with two mirror-image goals coming down the flanks to give United the 2-1 win. If you're a Sounders fan, that's cause for alarm. Portland love to attack from wide areas, with wingers Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan bringing explosiveness and dynamism to the wide areas, fullbacks Jeremy Hall and Rodney Wallace pushing forward from the back and Kenny Cooper holding up play and providing a big target in the center of the box. When Portland attacks through the middle, Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza provide dangerous and clever service. The Timbers are very much a direct, Route One, sort of team but they're far from bunker-and-counter. No one is going to confuse them for Barcelona any time soon but they're very good at what they do and there's enough skill in the team to give the opposition something to think about. Portland are going to attack, and the odds are very good that they're going to score.
They'd better hope that they do, because the Timbers do no boast a defense that can be called anything approaching solid. With the wide defenders spending so much time in the attack, Eric Brunner and Futty Danso have often been left to fend for themselves and suffice it to say, they're not of the caliber to inspire a great deal of confidence in such a scenario. The end result is a Timbers team that is tied for fourth in the league in goals scored and fourth from bottom in goals against. John Spencer clearly recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of his team, but it's far easier to be successful with a strong defense and mediocre attack than vice versa. And while the Sounders have had their difficulties in attack, they match up well against the Timbers suspect back line through virtue of their cleverness in the form of Fredy Montero and Nate Jaqua, the ability to strike from distance thanks to the delivery of Erik Friberg and the overwhelming presence that can be prevalent thanks in large part to the crashing runs of Brad Evans. There are a lot of goals in this game, and though things swing towards the Sounders favor the lower scoring and more deliberate of pace the game ends up being, a gaudy scoreline would not be at all surprising.
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