|Why yes, we are the only club that matters. Why do you ask?|
In 2018, Seattle again fell into their usual pattern of struggles to start the season, but after losing to the Timbers in Seattle and being 11 points adrift from the playoffs, the Sounders rallied to advance all the way to the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Ironically, it was the loss to the Timbers in June that seemed to galvanize the Sounders into a long unbeaten streak through July, August and September. Portland, meanwhile has been relatively consistent outside of a lengthy unbeaten streak from April to August that helped propel them to success under first year Coach Gio Savarese. It hasn't been all fun and games for either side, though, as there have been injuries and player adjustments that have affected the overall attack for each group. The Sounders reeled off five consecutive wins to finish the 2018 regular season, and Coach Brian Schmetzer has been pleased with the attack of Raul Ruidiaz (joined midseason in June), Nicolas Lodiero, Will Bruin, Cristian Roldan and Victor Rodriguez. It's a credit to Schmetzer and his team to find ways to replace injured scorer Jordan Morris and retired striker Clint Dempsey, and Schmetzer was hoping that his team could continue their hot streak.
|I didn't think Jeff Attinella touched Cristian Roldan on this play.|
Schmetzer decided to keep things relatively simple for his side, starting Stefan Frei in goal with Nouhou Tolo, Kim Kee-Hee, Chad Marshall and Kelvin Leerdam in defense. With Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson manning the defensive midfield, Seattle would rely upon the attacking trio of Roldan, Rodriguez and Lodiero as the midfielders with Ruidiaz as the lone striker. Portland has found success recently by returning to the 4 defender, 2 defensive midfielder, 3 attacking midfielder, and 1 striker formation and Savarese went with virtually the same lineup as was used in the 2 match series with Real Salt Lake in October. Jeff Attinella would again start in goal, having fully recovered from the shoulder injuries that shelved him late in the season, with Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense with Larrys Mabiala unavailable after being ejected in the knockout round match against FC Dallas. With Diego Chara and David Guzman handling the defensive midfield duties, it would be up to Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the attacking midfield and Jeremy Ebobisse as the striker to generate pressure on Frei. The recent battles between Chara and Alonso have been the stuff of legend with 2 of the very best defensive midfielders put on quite a show patrolling the middle, but with Chara on a caution from the FC Dallas match and 2 cautions triggering a suspension, a huge key for the Timbers would be to keep Chara from getting into any disciplinary trouble.
With Ted Unkel at the officiating controls, who has a reputation for being confident but unpredictable in his calls, the Sounders ramped up the pressure from the opening whistle as Lodiero and Alonso took turns executing fouls on Chara within the first few minutes. Ruidiaz was especially feisty and active with close misses in the 5th and 9th minute, while Roldan did his level best to cause trouble when he attacked the goal after the Ruidiaz miss in the 5th minute with Attinella charging to catch the spinning ball. There did appear to be light contact as Roldan went down awkwardly as Attinella tried to corrall the ball, but the shot spun out of play for a Seattle corner. VAR Official Allen Chapman contacted Unkel to have him review the contact using video replay, but even on the review, Unkel judged there was no foul on the play and the corner kick call would stand. Roldan would get some revenge in the 10th minute taking a ball from Rodriguez on the left with Tuiloma giving chase as Valentin was pulled in. Roldan was able to drop a cross into the box for Ruidiaz before Ridgewell could find the mark, and by that point, Raul had chipped the shot into the upper left corner of goal for an early 1 to 0 Sounders lead. With road goals being the first tiebreaker in the two match aggregate series should the teams finish the 2 match series tied in goals, this tally was huge for the visitors. It was a product of a very aggressive, deliberate attack plan and it looked to frustrate Portland as they couldn't find anything constructive to work from.
|The Timbers youth showed very well in this match, especially Jeremy Ebobisse.|
Another situation that added some hesistancy to the Seattle attack was the injury bug, as Roldan was unable to continue in the match after a few other bumps and was replaced in the 30th minute by Waylon Francis due to a groin injury. Seattle's issues grew bigger in the 40th minute when Marshall injured his knee taking a clearance, and he had to be stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Roman Torres. The Sounders nearly burned through all of their subs in the first half when during the seven minutes of stoppage time. Svensson and Guzman collided heads during a corner kick and both players spent several minutes on the pitch getting treatment. While they were able to return to their feet and finish the half, Guzman complained of dizziness after returning for the second half, and was eventually replaced by Lawrence Olum in the 50th minute. I thought Chara, Valeri and Blanco were the keys to the first half success for the Timbers, but it was Guzman and his 85 percent passing rate, stellar defense and good orgnaization that were the engine that fueled the 40 minutes plus of great soccer. I did wonder after the halftime break if the Timbers would be able to sustain the intensity and tempo they kept up in the first half, and Olum's entry unfortunately slowed down the entire attack. Thankfully for the Timbers, the Sounders were having their own issues on the offensive side.
|With Larrys Mabiala unavailable, Bill Tuiloma stepped in and did very well.|
The Timbers might be kicking themselves for not getting a third goal on the afternoon, but for stretches of the match, they simply dominated the pace and movement and Seattle couldn't match it. In a relatively baffling bit of news as well, the Timbers weren't cautioned at any point in the match so everyone is available; consider that the Sounders had targeted Chara with some early physical play, and Diego not only kept his composure and played his usual style for the entire match, he wasn't whistled for a foul at all. Portland effectively can advance to the conference finals with a win or draw in Seattle, and there are some scenarios where even a loss could advance them provided the Timbers score at least 1 goal on the road. Seattle has to feel good about the series not being too out of hand with just being down a goal and having a road goal to their credit for the series tiebreaker, but losing Roldan and Marshall to injury are key blows to an offense that needed some creativity at points. Roldan was the most effective winger for Seattle in his short stint, and there are questions if he can't go about who replaces this key playmaker for them. Suffice to say, the series is far from over and while both teams have positives to fall back on, there's enough question marks for each group to discourage a conservative approach to Thursday.
|Liam Ridgewell shows frustration after the Sounders got their first goal.|