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MLS Playoff Preview: Timbers look to finish off rival Sounders

Nov 7, 2013, 6:56 PM EDT

Sporting Kansas City v Portland Timbers Getty Images
  • Portland won series opener in Seattle, 2-1
  • Timbers are unbeaten at home since March
  • Sounders expect injured Yedlin, Martins to be available

PORTLAND, Ore. — Maybe we’re over-thinking this. Seattle has been a consistent postseason participant and have an absolutely loaded squad, but they’ve also won one of their last nine games, and traveling to JELD-WEN Field on Thursday, they’re facing a Portland team with all the indicators in their favor: nine games unbeaten; two straight wins over Seattle; 15 games unbeaten at home; the league’s best goal difference; only five losses in 35 games. Between two teams tending in opposite directions, is there any reason to believe Seattle can knock off the Timbers on Thursday?

Of course there is. Seattle shouldn’t be considered favorites, but with weapons like Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey, they certainly have a puncher’s chance. A clicking Osvaldo Alonso is the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer, Brad Evans has gone from massively underrated to finally appreciated, and on Saturday, Mauro Rosales showed he can still influence a game. The Sounders have enough weapons to land a punch, especially if an inexperienced Timbers team proves willing to expose their chin.

Watch the game tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN or watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra

There are, however, a few reasons to think Seattle will be better than Saturday and, by inference (they only lost by one), capable of getting a result in Portland:

  • Seattle should be significantly healthier. Right back DeAndre Yedlin, who turned his ankle in the Sounders’ first round game against Colorado, will almost certainly play, and the team is optimistic Obafemi Martins will return from a groin injury. Each could provide an upgrade on Thursday, be it as a starter (Yedlin’s most likely role) or off the bench (Martins, who could yet start).
  • The Sounders could switch formations, going away from the narrow diamond midfield that cost them on Saturday. A move back to their typical 4-4-2 could allow them to move Rosales into the starting lineup, moving Evans to the left and Clint Dempsey up top. With Lamar Neagle suspended (yellow card accumulation), the decision could come down to whether Martins is able to start.
  • Seattle will have also learned from Portland’s tactics, with people now starting to realize the possession-dependent Timbers that’d been adored throughout the season disappeared two months ago. Against a Timber team willing to cede possession, the Sounders must be willing to play the extra pass and try to create better chances. On Saturday, they should have chosen quality over quantity.

But whereas Seattle will institute some of those tweaks, Portland’s not hard to predict. The only lineup question ahead of Saturday’s game was who would start at striker. But with Ryan Johnson getting on the scoresheet in Seattle, the Jamaica international seems likely to get the call on Thursday, particularly given the Sounders are unlikely to make any changes in central defense.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Seattle Sounders ahead of Thursday’s visit to Portland]

“We felt his strength in the air, his physicality, ability to hold the ball up, his athleticism, his pace and power was a good matchup against [Sounders defenders Jhon Kennedy] Hurtado and [Djimi] Traore,” Caleb Porter explained, asked for the reasons he selected Johnson Saturday night.

source:  Even if Portland stays with the same XI, one change is guaranteed: The crowd. The over-20,000 who’ll sellout JELD-WEN will strive to impress against their regional rivals, Seattle’s fans having had their chance to do the same on Saturday. Then, the Sounders’ Emerald City Supporters’ weekend tifo featured a large skull beneath a banner reading “WELCOME TO YOUR NIGHTMARE” (right). The Timbers Army will certainly try to outdo their rivals in support.

But beyond personnel and lineup choices, changing tactics or shifting venues, the implicit question people seem to be asking is whether Portland’s for real. Their final standing in the West says one thing, as do all the underlying numbers, but having never made it this far before (and having undergone such a steep and unexpected rise to get here), people are understandably incredulous. Not only has Portland never won before, but we’ve never really see a team like this — a collection of disparate parts assembled under a neophyte boss — succeed in MLS. Until that happens, people will compare them to the Los Angeleses, Real Salt Lakes, and Seattles of the world, teams they’re used to seeing in the postseason, and wonder whether they can get it done.

[MORE: MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Portland Timbers ahead of their visit from Seattle]

On Thursday, Portland will either continue all the trends or justify the doubts, but given those doubts have been proven wrong throughout the season, it might be best to acknowledge the data, see a team that’s lost only five times this year, and recognize Portland are probably much bigger favorites than we’re giving them credit for.

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