At this point most people with even a passing interest in American soccer are aware of the Sounders-Timbers rivalry. The first MLS contest between the two sides failed to disappoint in terms of intensity and with the proceedings taking place at Jeld-Wen Field this time around there's little reason to think things will be different on that front. As for the game itself? It would be an understatement to say that the 1-1 draw in Seattle was the most enthralling game in history, but it was at the very least a tight and tense affair.
Things have changed for both sides in the two months since then. At the time of the first meeting the Timbers were riding high having won four of their previous five, while the Sounders were struggling to find their identity at the height of their injury struggles. As of late, Seattle are as hot as any team in the league while Portland have managed just a point since their last win on May 21st; after winning their first five games at Jeld-Wen the Timbers have lost three of their last four at home. Portland's run of good form had them briefly looking like legitimate playoff contenders, but as it stands the Timbers sit just one spot above bottom with the worst goals scored and goals against marks in the Western Conference. Portland's defensive struggles have been a consistent problem all season long but as of late their inability to score has been just as worrisome. The Timbers have been most dangerous from set pieces this season but that ability has largely disappeared in recent weeks, which isn't too surprising; even the best dead-ball teams have dry spells. If Portland hope to earn more consistent results, their forwards will need to start scoring from the run of play.
It's tempting to focus on the struggles of Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza as the reason for Portland's inability to mount a threatening attack, and to be sure they've been largely underwhelming. But just as damaging to both the attacking and defensive phases of the game has been the Timbers inability assert themselves in the midfield. Portland's greatest strength is their speed on the flanks, but as teams have adjusted to the threat and forced the Timbers to work the ball through the middle of the pitch they've been unable compensate. Portland have some decent players in central midfield with Jack Jewsbury leading the team with six goals and Diego Chara performing well in the holding role. Still, the Timbers have rarely been able to win the midfield battle in games where they've been unable to dictate the tempo, something they've recently struggled to do.
On the surface of things then, this isn't an especially good matchup for Portland. Seattle has managed to control possession and pace in nearly every game they've played this season. Their midfield is arguably the best in the league with Osvoldo Alonso in the discussion for best defensive mid in MLS, Mauro Rosales a steadying, creative influence on the right, Alvaro Fernandez beginning to show why the Sounders made him a Designated Player in the first place despite playing out of position on the left and whichever of Brad Evans or Erik Friberg that get the nod on a given day bringing energy and crashing runs in the box to box role. Despite occasional disorganization the back line has been a strength and Kasey Keller clearly choose to go out on top as he's shown himself to still be amongst the class of the league between the sticks.
Yet for all of their quality, Seattle have had scoring struggles of their own. As dominant as they've been, they've rarely shown an ability to blow teams out or to put opponents away, meaning that while they're rightly heavy favorites it's unlikely the final scoreline will tilt too heavily in their favor. It's likely that Seattle will be able to boss this game; the Timbers are quite simply not a good team right now and the Sounders have looked as good as any team in the league over the past two months. But without that ability to convert chances and pull away, the Timbers have a chance. Their set play ability hasn't been in evidence of late but it's not as though Jack Jewsbury has forgotten how to take a free kick and a striker as good as Kenny Cooper is bound to find his scoring touch at some point. With Jeld-Wen bound to be rocking from the start it's possible that the Timbers find the home field advantage that's deserted them.
The Sounders are a far superior side to Portland and they'll expect to take three points back to Seattle. But without the killer instinct they've lacked all season long, it's far from a sure thing. This is a big game for the Sounders even without the rivalry being taken into account; Supporters Shield contenders need to beat bottom table teams no matter the venue and with the Galaxy picking up a win on Saturday picking up only a point would make the gap look a far tougher hill to climb. But the rivalry absolutely does enter into it, and a win in Portland would go a long way towards completely erasing any remaining negative feelings over the disappointing result earlier in the season. The Sounders are going to need to find their ability to shut down and dominate inferior opponents at some point if they want to continue their march towards elite status; what better time than against a bitter rival on their own turf?