The biggest game in American soccer is here. The Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders are set to clash for the first time in 2016 on Sunday at Providence Park (12:00 PM, TV on FOX).
The buildup to the first installment of this year's derby has been spirited. Clint Dempsey has pitched in, as he is wont to do, and the two coaches have engaged each other as well, with Seattle manager Sigi Schmid saying of the Timbers' MLS Cup win of 2015, "I know they're excited about that, but... anybody can win a tournament."
Shot back Timbers boss Caleb Porter, "Anybody can win a tournament. Not everyone can win the big one." The implication was clear — through seven years in which they've won the US Open Cup four times, Seattle certainly hasn't. Porter also took aim Friday at a video made by the Sounders earlier this year highlighting refereeing calls that have gone against them.
All the trappings are in place. The Timbers will play in front of a network TV audience for the first time in their MLS era, and the Timbers Army will unveil a tifo that owner Merritt Paulson is urging fans not to miss. The same sentiment could, of course, be applied to the entirety of what promises to be another special installment of the country's greatest soccer rivalry.
Last summer, the Seattle Sounders arrived in Portland in a similarly sorry state. With Dempsey suspended, and Obafemi Martins and Osvaldo Alonso suspended, the Timbers took advantage in a memorable 4-1 thrashing.
That meeting, the last between the two teams at Providence Park, marked the Timbers' biggest margin of victory in the series and tied for their biggest margin of victory of the entire 2015 season. This matchup marks the first derby in any competition since Portland beat Seattle to win Cascadia's first MLS Cup.
This hasn't been a vintage Timbers campaign so far, but it's been a soiree compared to what Seattle has endured. The Sounders have already lost ten times this year — with five of those defeats coming at CenturyLink Field — and currently sit in ninth place in the Western Conference. For a team that has never missed the playoffs in seven MLS seasons, these are previously unheard-of lows.
A win in this game, though, would go a long way in helping the embattled Schmid. This has been a high-scoring series in Portland in recent times, with the last three games played at Providence Park averaging more than six goals. Expect fireworks.
One last side-note: The Timbers will wear red in this game for the first time against the Sounders at home, while Seattle will appear in its first-choice rave green — and if that doesn't tell you exactly what the club thinks of its primary kit this year, nothing will. Sunday's referee Jair Marrufo also officiated this game last year, as well as MLS Cup.
Dempsey's gone and done it again. With his team already 3-0 up on Wednesday night against a second-string FC Dallas team, the former USMNT captain raked his hands across the face of Dallas' Juan Esteban Ortiz and got sent off.
Ortiz did toss an elbow, and shortly thereafter leave little doubt that he's a better actor than he is a soccer player, but Dempsey's response was laughably stupid. He's now suspended for this game for a second consecutive year, and the Sounders will miss him dearly.
The Timbers, meanwhile, will have their star man available. Diego Valeri, who missed the team's last three games injured, trained fully on Friday and will start for the first time since the end of the June.
With Valeri out, Portland hasn't scored a single goal from the run of play in July. The importance of his return, especially for the likes of Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe, cannot be overstated.
Valeri won't be the only Timber returning to action on Sunday. Diego Chara, suspended for the midweek game against Montreal, will be back in the lineup as well. That should move Jack Jewsbury to the bench, though Ben Zemanski, who has started nine consecutive games, did tire noticeably at the end of the draw against the Impact.
The Timbers made the signing of Lithuanian left back Vytautas Andriuškevičius official on Thursday, but the earliest he'll play is next week. The Timbers' defense, which has only conceded once in its last three games, should remain unchanged. Adam Kwarasey could be available off the bench for the first time since he injured his hand against San Jose in April, but Jake Gleeson is the team's unquestioned starter in goal.
Seattle has struggled mightily this year — even more so when Dempsey has been out — to create chances through the middle of the field. Their three-man midfield, spearheaded by the ignominious Alonso, is nothing more than defensively competent.
Look for the Sounders to try and get their fullbacks up the field to swing in crosses. Schmid could turn to a number of players to replace Dempsey, but the attacking onus for Seattle is likely to fall on the shoulders of standout rookie Jordan Morris.
The Timbers' attack should shade towards the middle of the field, where Adi has had a huge amount of success against Chad Marshall over the years. Look for his drought in front of goal, which dates back to the Real Salt Lake game in mid-June, to end.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
24 - Ridgewell (C)
7 - Borchers
16 - Valentin
14 - Zemanski
21 - Chara
6 - Nagbe
8 - Valeri
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
Portland came out in this game last year firing on all cylinders. With Valeri back in the lineup, we should see a similarly buoyant performance on Sunday. The Timbers know they're the better team, and, just like they did last year, they'll prove it in a 3-0 win.