There's little doubt that the low point of the Seattle Sounders season came on June 24th. Seattle trailed 2-0 before the game was half an hour old thanks to two horrendous defensive miscues, and though an Eddie Johnson goal just shy of the hour mark made things respectable it was a shocking display from a team that started the season looking like Supporters Shield front-runners. The loss came near the end of what seemed like an interminable winless streak, and it gave the struggling Timbers playoff hopes a significant boost. Since that day, things have gone in very different directions for both sides.
The Sounders have lost just one MLS game since then (a 2-1 heart-breaker in San Jose) and pulled themselves back to second place in the Western Conference. Portland has lost 8 of the 13 games since their 2-1 win over Seattle, and during that time they've fallen all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference, fired coach John Spencer, and done a not-insignificant amount of roster juggling, much of which hasn't gone over all that well. Announcing that current Akron head coach will be taking over coaching duties from Gavin Wilkinson at the conclusion of Akron's current season was a bold and positive step for the Timbers, but it's little consolation for this season; there were high expectations coming into the year, and the Timbers haven't lived up to any of them.
But Portland still has one thing to play for: the Cascadia Cup. Despite Seattle and Vancouver both having much better seasons, the Timbers have done quite well against their fellow Cascadia sides; in addition to the win over the Sounders in June, Portland has a win and a draw against the Whitecaps, and with the Whitecaps sporting the same 0-1-1 record against Seattle the Timbers have a three-point edge in the current standings. A win on Saturday would clinch the trophy for Portland, and though that certainly wouldn't be enough to make up for the rest of the season it would be at least something tangible, not to mention the always important bragging rights that go along with holding the Cup.
Despite the fact that Portland has beaten the Sounders once this year and that anything can happen in an MLS game, however, a win for the Timbers has to be viewed as a relative longshot. It should not be especially controversial to claim that Seattle is just a significantly more talented and better team than Portland right now, and removed from the context of the rivalry it's doubtful that many people would be giving the Timbers much of a chance. Portland is in a pretty significant transitional phase right now, and they're not especially close to matching the Sounders at any one spot on the field. The questionable status of both Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert changes the equation somewhat, but as well as the Sounders have been playing as of late even the absence of both wouldn't move the needle all that much.
But realistically, games like this can't be removed from the context of the rivalry. Whether or not one believes in the impact of the intangible factors involved in rivalry games, it's impossible for partisan fans of either teams to remove their nerves from the equation. When one is involved in a rivalry as intense as this, the mere thought of losing to "them" is almost incomprehensible. Fans of the favored side will always assume their team will put their opponent in their rightful place, while supporters of the underdog will daydream of knocking those smug bastards down a peg or two. It's the nature of rivalries such as this, and it's what makes them so simultaneously wonderful and horrible to be a part of; at some point, the game is going to be played and the odds are good that the resulting reality of the outcome will smack one side's fans in the face like a ton of bricks.
But no matter the outcome, it should be a memorable game. NBC is betting on it, choosing to put Timbers-Sounders on their broadcast station and giving MLS a chance to showcase one of its most anticipated games to a massive audience. There's little doubt that the game will disappoint; another great thing about games like this is that no matter the score, it's going to be entertaining. A close game means tension, a blowout means one set of fans will make their displeasure known in a way that only adds to the spectacle. It's really a no-lose kind of situation.
Unless of course you lose. But let's not think about that just yet.