Sam Ortega/Portland Timbers
With discontent over MLS's ban of the Iron Front symbol swirling, the buildup the Portland Timbers' showdown with the Seattle Sounders tonight at Providence Park has had a decidedly unusual feel. Tonight's game will be well worth watching — for what happens off of, as well as on, the field (7 p.m., TV on ESPN).

The Opponent

So accustomed to surging at this stage of the season, the Sounders are instead in a tailspin. They've won just one of their six games, losing at home to Sporting Kansas City, drawing at home with New England, and last Saturday drawing on the road against a ten-man LA Galaxy.

Now, having slipped down to fifth place in the Western Conference, just three points ahead of the playoff red line, the tension is mounting. Gustav Svensson jawed with manager Brian Schmetzer after being substituted against the Galaxy; postgame, the Swede said of his team, "the confidence isn't really there right now."

What's the matter? First and foremost, the Sounders are struggling defensively. Roman Torres is suspended for PED use, Brad Smith is hurt, and the back six as a whole looks slow and uncoordinated. The departures of Chad Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso have been devastating.

At this point, it's not at all clear that the Sounders have the talent nor the mentality necessary to compete for a championship. If they are to turn their season around, they're going to need to dig in and get big performances from their top players — starting tonight.

The Tactics

The Timbers beat this Seattle just over a month ago at CenturyLink Field, and they did so in classic Timbers fashion: sitting back, absorbing pressure, and then blitzing by them in transition.

Seattle more or less played into the Timbers' hands that night. They had 59 percent possession, were happy to ping passes around midfield, and generally attempt to play their game coming forward. They just weren't creative in midfield or clinical enough in front of goal to play it successfully.

Coming into Portland, Schmetzer may well take a more conservative tact. The Timbers will again be without Larrys Mabiala, who suffered a hamstring injury against Chicago a week-and-a-half ago, and, as a result, were themselves extremely vulnerable defending in transition in their loss against Atlanta last Sunday.

Seattle has forward players in Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz who can stretch the Timbers' backline and put pressure on their center backs. The question is whether they can play quickly and decisively enough in midfield to get them the ball in the right moments.

The other question for the Sounders, of course, is at the back. Atlanta owed their win over the Timbers last weekend to outstanding center back play and goalkeeping as much as their transition offense; Seattle does not have the same kind of quality in those positions.

To make them pay, the Timbers' front four will have to be sharper than they were last time out. Jorge Moreira — who had a mosnter game in Seattle — is suspended due to yellow card accumulation, so the support he normally provides on the right wing will be missing.

Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse, and Brian Fernandez will have to be at their best. If they are, Seattle won't be able to hang with them.

There are storylines aplenty off the field as well. The Timbers Army is planning to fall silent for the game's first 33 minutes, before breaking into its version of the Italian antifascist anthem Bella Ciao, in protest of the Iron Front ban. Jair Murrufo, who refereed MLS Cup 2015, will have the whistle.

The Lineups

12 - Clark
4 - Villafaña
18 - Cascante
25 - Tuiloma
16 - Valentin
21 - Chara
22 - Paredes
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
17 - Ebobisse
7 - Fernandez

— The Timbers will be shorthanded in defense: Mabiala is hurt, and Moreira is suspended. Zarek Valentin will step in at right back.

— Giovani Savarese started Renzo Zambrano in central midfield against Atlanta, but the young Venezuelan struggled. Expect Cristhian Paredes to reclaim his spot.

— Fernandez already has a tremendous goalscoring record against the Sounders, but he's scored in just two of his last eight league games. The Timbers need him to come up big again in this one.

The Memory

Seattle's last visited Portland, it was for the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal. The Timbers won 2-1, setting the table for the classic second leg that followed.

The Pick

The Timbers are the better team, but the absences of Mabiala and Moreira will loom large. This finishes 2-2 — enough to bring the Cascadia Cup back to Portland.