Keith Hickey: Sounders' season built on Portland woes

The key to Seattle's impressive record this year has been the ability to get the upper hand against its biggest rival.
PORTLAND, Ore. -- It wasn't like this last fall. When the Portland Timbers took a 5-3 aggregate victory over the Seattle Sounders in the 2013 Western Conference semifinals, there was a feeling of invincibility around Caleb Porter's team. It appeared driven, united in purpose and in pursuit of a common goal. The team played overwhelming possession-based, technical soccer. It won games, and looked good in the process.

In contrast, the Sounders were overpaid and under-performing, over-the-hill players on over-sized contracts with roster holes clumsily filled with speculative duds. Some called for Sounders coach Sigi Schmid to be fired.

This season has turned that narrative on its head. Seattle has been the overwhelming favorite in almost every game it's played this season, thanks to its veteran attacking core and a handful of smart additions. Portland has floundered, mired in mediocrity and drowning in soft goals below the playoff red line. The Timbers attack is still potent, averaging 1.64 goals per game, but Portland has the worst defense in the West a year after having its best.

MORE: Balotelli in photos | Done deals | WAGs

And when the two sides have met in 2014, the results have been firmly in Seattle's favor. In four games this season, the Sounders have won three, with an inspiring comeback to take a draw in the other. The Rave Green have taken seven league points from their encounters with their southern neighbors, and knocked the Timbers out of the U.S. Open Cup en route to the final.

"Our team went out there with an attitude, we wanted to make a statement today," said Schmid after the match. "This was not last year, this was not deja vu."

It was not. Gone is the suffocating pressure and lightning-quick movement of the 2013 Timbers. The team which played on Sunday was cut apart by marauding counterattacks and its own inability to deal with the Sounders' stars.

If fortunes had been reversed, and Portland maintained its mental edge over Seattle in just the meetings between the two this season, things would look quite different right now. If it had been the Timbers who had taken seven points from nine and won in the Open Cup, they would be safely inside the playoff picture and potentially playing for silverware, while Seattle, instead of leading the Supporters' Shield race, would be looking up at Dallas, Salt Lake and LA from back in fourth.

In a way, Seattle's success this year has been built on a foundation of dominance over Portland. Ten of Seattle's 43 league goals have come against the Timbers. Its potent striking partnership of Clint Dempsey (10 goals, five assists) and Obefemi Martins (10 goals, eight assists) has found its richest form in these games, with the pair scoring or assisting eight of those 10 goals.

Portland's defensive impotence has been an issue all season, with changes made and unmade, players signed and others traded and more signed when those moves proved not to work. And while the poor results against Seattle are just the most obvious symptom of a deeper malaise, it can only sting to see your biggest rival using your failures as a platform to chase trophies.