The Portland Timbers will make their first and only trip of the 2016 season to Seattle on Sunday night, to face a revitalized Sounders team in a match that suddenly carries major playoff implications for both teams (6:30 PM, TV on FOX Sports 1).
This match is the first of a home-and-home series between American soccer's greatest rivals that will conclude next Sunday at Providence Park. With victories in both games, the Sounders — who fired manager Sigi Schmid at the end of July — would move above the Timbers in the Western Conference standings.
When these two teams met just over a month ago in Portland, it was a rout. The Timbers won 3-1, with Diego Valeri and Lucas Melano starring. That game, perhaps the highpoint of Portland's season to date, may be the last time that Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers served as the Timbers' center back pairing.
Of course that Sounders team looked very different from the one that will take the field on Sunday. Schmid was in still in charge, Seattle was playing without a suspended Clint Dempsey, and the signing of Uruguayan Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro had not yet been completed.
But since the sacking of Schmid, which coincided perhaps not coincidentally with the signing of Lodeiro, Seattle hasn't lost. They're unbeaten in three, and have won back-to-back games. Interim Sounders manager and Seattle soccer fixture Brian Schmetzer will be taking charge of his first derby since the mid-2000s in USL competition.
Sunday's meeting will be the first between the two teams in Seattle since Portland won MLS Cup last December. The Timbers lost twice at CenturyLink last year, and have never won a regular season game in the venue. They did, however, beat the Sounders away in the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs by a score of 2-1.
Caleb Porter seems likely to scrap the 4-4-2 that was an abject failure in DC last weekend, likely meaning that Jack McInerney will be returned to the bench and Fanendo Adi will be the loan striker against the MLS team he's had the most success against in his time in the league.
Diego Chara will come back into the team after missing the DC loss due to suspension, and with Ben Zemanski still out, Jack Jewsbury looks set to partner him in the middle in Portland's familiar 4-2-3-1. Those two players jive nicely, and both have plenty of experience against Seattle. Look for Jewsbury to get forward if he does play.
The 4-2-3-1, if deployed, will push Darlington Nagbe back out to the wing, while, considering that Portland will look to play much of this game on the counter, the struggling Melano seems like a good bet to start on the other flank.
Perhaps Porter's biggest personnel question is whether to hand Steven Taylor, who played 90 minutes and scored for T2 last weekend, his full debut in one of the biggest games of the season. This game was Taylor's initial target date, but if Porter doesn't want to chance him, Jermaine Taylor will likely get the nod.
Seattle will be particularly weary of Portland's counter-attacking ability, and could limit the forward ambition of fullbacks Tyrone Mears and Joevin Jones, but this game might be won or lost depending on the ability of Chara to limit the influence of Lodeiro.
Seattle, along, you'd imagine, with their supporters, will have a point to prove on Sunday — having lost not just the last game to their Southern rivals, but also the race to win Cascadia's first MLS Cup.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
24 - Ridgewell (C)
27 - S. Taylor
5 - Vytas
21 - Chara
13 - Jewsbury
6 - Nagbe
8 - Valeri
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
With Seattle in terrific form since getting Lodeiro on the field, and the Timbers without a road win all year, all signs point to this being the Sounders' night. 3-1 Seattle.