The first game of 2014 involving two teams from the Pacific Northwest finds one of the participants desperate for a victory.Nov. 7, 2013. Jeld-Wen Field, Portland. Forty-eight minutes into the second half of their Western Conference semifinal second leg against the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers were up 5-1 on aggregate and looking every inch like genuine contenders. Following a road win in the first leg, they had scored three straight goals at home against their most hated rivals.
The Sounders eventually fought back for a more respectable 5-3 aggregate, but the damage was done. For the first time since joining Major League Soccer — and perhaps some time before as well — it seemed the Timbers had finally eclipsed their northern neighbors.
Five months on, and the scales are threatening to tip back in Seattle's favor. The Sounders have had a mixed start to the season, picking up two wins and falling to two losses, but Portland has exited the gate in humiliating fashion, coming up winless in its first four games and entering Saturday's hugely important clash on a two-game losing skid.
Worringly for Timbers fans, the team is still lacking in offense, having scored just three times this year. And of those, the most recent was a fluke own goal from FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges. No Timbers player has found the net since Gaston Fernandez poached a sitter against Chicago 191 minutes of soccer ago. Captain Will Johnson has yet to produce last year's form in terms of midfield play or goal-scoring, and it's a similar story with Diego Valeri, who has yet to produce a goal or assist this season.
Making matters worse, Portland will be without starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who is still serving a suspension, meaning backup Andrew Weber, who has allowed four goals in 108 minutes of play this season, is slated to start. (To be fair, the first goal of the four was a penalty conceded by Ricketts. And equally fair, the second was a penalty needlessly conceded by Weber.) Thankfully for the Timbers, fullback Michael Harrington's red card was rescinded, leaving the rest of the back line intact for a game that could help define the Timbers' year.
It's odd for a game so early in the season to be so vital, even one as charged as a Cascadia derby. And perhaps it isn't for Seattle. Losing would be embarrassing for the Sounders, and a setback, sure. But for the hosts? A loss, on home turf, to Seattle? Or even a draw, to make it five games without a win? At some point Portland's slow start begins to look like a bad year.
When Caleb Porter's side struck gold in 2013, playing a striking brand of possession soccer, clinching the top seed in the Western Conference and blowing away its biggest rival, it was largely assumed that Portland was ascending to an elite level, becoming a perennial contender like Real Salt Lake or the LA Galaxy, rather than a playoff scrapper.
The nature of MLS' structure largely ensures competitive balace. Luck, momentum, form, confidence — the intangible qualites of a succesful team can make up the relatively modest differences in salary. Take a decently built MLS side, playing a system that fits its personnel with a few key players finding form, and if it gets lucky, the Colorado Rapids win the 2010 MLS Cup, or the San Jose Earthquakes win the 2012 Supporters' Shield.
The reverse side of this coin is that when those things don't all come together, teams that were nigh invincible in one season may fall short in the next. The 2010 Rapids became the 2011 Rapids and lost in the first round of the playoffs. A year after winning the Supporters' Shield, the San Jose Earthquakes ended up 15 points worse and missed the postseason.
If the Timbers win and go on to recapture last year's magic, the past month can be written off as another slow start, just like last year. And if they can't, the Sounders will be back on top in the Pacific Northwest.
Portland - A 2-1 scoreline flattered the Timbers in their loss to FC Dallas. Portland was outpassed and outscored by a Texan side that has become the early front-runner. With the lone goal in reply coming from a bizarre own goal, the question marks over the Portland attack grow more and more menacing.
Coming up: The big one. Home to Seattle with three points, bragging rights and plenty of momentum on the line. Saturday, 12 p.m. PT, NBCSN.
Seattle - A late goal saw the 10-man Sounders slip to a 2-1 defeat aginst the Columbus Crew when Justin Meram was allowed to pick his shot on the edge of the area following a short corner. Note to Seattle: No free shots on goal from 18 yards away.
Coming up: The Sounders will be without defender Djimi Traore against Portland after his red card against Columbus. A win would go along way toward easing last year's playoff loss. Saturday, 12 p.m. PT, NBCSN.
Vancouver - An early goal from Jordan Harvey and a Kenny Miller penalty saw off a tough Houston Dynamo side 2-1. Darren Mattocks is still looking for his first goal of the year, but he did manage to draw the penalty.
Coming up: The Colorado Rapids visit to test Vancouver's unblemished home record. Saturday, 3:30 p.m. PT, MLS Live.