The Seattle Sounders came way from Saturday's loss to Portland still confident in winning their playoff series, but the Timbers are the team that actually has reason to believe.SEATTLE — When Seattle Sounders supporters unfurled their pregame tifo Saturday night before their team’s playoff match against the Portland Timbers, the shimmering blue and green foil and skull design sent a clear message. “Welcome to your nightmare” read the banner above the impressive display. What Sounders fans could not have imagined is that this message applied to them, and not the Timbers supporters who made the two-hour trek up north.
Only Osvaldo Alonso’s 90th-minute goal kept Saturday from being a complete nightmare for the Sounders and gave Seattle some hope heading into Thursday’s second leg in Portland. The 2-1 margin is significantly more manageable, but that doesn’t change the fact the Sounders have to win in a stadium where no road team has won since March.
Among the teams to leave Portland with a loss during that stretch is the Sounders, who suffered a 1-0 defeat at Jeld-Wen Field on Oct. 13. You would think the recent memory of defeat in Portland, coupled with Saturday’s loss at home to the same Timbers, would discourage the Sounders. But instead the talk after Saturday’s match was of how Seattle nearly got a result in Portland on that October night, hitting the post several times in a match the Sounders were missing Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans to international duty.
“We lost 1-0 and I think we hit the crossbar three times, so I feel confident we can go there and win the game,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said of that game in October.
“We just played there so you have those fresh memories, and we did play well there and lost 1-0,” said Sounders goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. “We hit the bar a couple of times down there. Eventually your luck’s going to change and the ball’s going to bounce your way.”
After Saturday’s match, Schmid was once again encouraged by what he saw from his team despite another defeat.
“The goal at the end of the game was very important for us because it gives us an opportunity to go down there and win,” Schmid said. “When you look at possession and who created more chances, whatever you want to look at, corner kicks and things like that, I think we showed that we can carry the game to them.
“We just have to go down to Portland and carry the game to them, and score.”
The real question is just how confident should the Sounders be after Saturday’s match? On the surface, Saturday was a game that saw Seattle hold a considerable edge in possession and create more chances, but it also never really felt like a match Portland was in much trouble in.
For all intents and purposes, the Timbers let the Sounders have the ball, choosing instead to absorb pressure and test the Sounders on the counter. The tactic helped the Timbers conserve energy while really testing a tired Sounders squad. The Timbers essentially took a boxing strategy, the rope-a-dope, and applied it to the first leg of their MLS playoff series, and it worked perfectly. They made the Sounders expend a lot of energy, but gave them few truly dangerous looks, and managed to pull off some punishing blows of their own.
“The key is to be organized against those guys,” Porter said of beating the Sounders again. “When you’re playing against talented individuals you have to defend as a group, so your collective organization is very important. I thought they had a lot of crosses and set pieces, but they never broke us down a ton.”
“It’s important when you’re at home to get a result at home, so we know the pressure was on them to deliver,” Porter added. “The last thing you want to do is lose. They knew it was important to get off to a good start because now they have to come back at us and they know we’re good at home.”
For Schmid and the Sounders, there is a sense that they can dictate terms to the Timbers when the teams meet Thursday, but that would ignore the reality of Portland’s style of play at home. When they play at Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers don’t sit back. They attack and press and dominate possession, regardless of the opponent.
If Saturday was the Timbers using the rope-a-dope, Thursday at Jeld-Wen will very likely be a case of Portland looking to land knockout punches early and often. How the Sounders will respond to that aggressiveness will tell the tale, but only one team has managed to beat Porter’s Timbers at home, and that was Montreal in March where the Timbers were clearly the better team and beaten by a magical goal from Hassoun Camara.
The Sounders will be hoping for some magic of their own Thursday, and with Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey on their squad, they still have to be taken seriously. That said, the reality is that the only thing that kept the Timbers' performance Saturday night from being a masterclass in how to win a road playoff game was Alonso’s stoppage-time goal, which cut the Sounders' deficit in half, and gave them hope heading into Thursday.
“It’s an important goal, because we’re down by a goal and it’s halftime of the game,” Schmid said. “We feel confident that we can go down to Portland and win. Just as they came here and won, we feel very confident we can go there and win.”
Schmid’s belief in his team isn’t completely without some foundation, but the fact the two matches he is using to gather belief in his team’s ability to beat the Timbers were two losses to the Timbers makes the sentiment feel a little bit more like wishful thinking than reality.
For the Timbers' part, they walked out of CenturyLink Field a confident bunch, leaving with the swagger of a team that is unbeaten in nine matches, and the satisfaction of actually accomplishing their mission Saturday night.
“Of course he’s going to say he’s confident,” Porter said when told of Schmid’s postgame comments Saturday. “What’s he going to say, that they’re not confident? Of course he’s going to say they’re confident.
“I’m confident too, and of course I’m going to say that, but I have every reason to be confident.”