BEAVERTON, Ore. – A lot has changed for the Portland Timbers since they last faced the Seattle Sounders on July 13.
For one, Liam Ridgewell has emerged as an ace-in-the-hole scoring threat.
The newly acquired center back and Designated Player showed off his attacking prowess, finishing off a coast-to-coast drive with an authoritative left-footed blast for the Timbers only goal in their 1-1 away draw last Saturday against the New England Revolution.
“I’d be very surprised if [Seattle] were worried about my scoring ability, that’s for sure,” Ridgewell said following Portland’s Friday training session at the team facility. “If that’s what they’re worried about, it should be a good game for us.”
Ridgewell was on the bench when the Sounders beat Portland 2-0 a little over a month ago, but the English Premier League veteran leads a transformed side into Providence Park for Sunday's nationally televised showdown (5 pm ET, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes). Ridgewell has since helped steady a struggling defense that at one point was the worst in the league and the Timbers' improved performances coincide with a return to health of several key players.
“For a lot of teams, it’s the opposite at this stage of the season,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “You’re chewed up, you’ve got injuries, you’re banged up.”
He alluded to Seattle having to rest star striker Clint Dempsey in their last game.
“And I understand, he played in the World Cup, but we’re not in that position,” Porter said. “We’ve got guys like Ridgwell, who’s continuing to get more and more fit, more and more sharp, more and more hungry, so I think we’re on an upswing.”
Defenders Norberto Paparatto and Pa Modou Kah and forward Maximiliano Urruti also missed the last Seattle game, while winger Rodney Wallace was just returning to health and only played 27 minutes. Porter noted that it’s the first time all season he’s had his full complement of first-choice and reserves available for selection. Darlington Nagbe, who played 37 minutes against the Revs after missing the previous two games with an injury, is also back to full training.
“I like that fact that at the end of the year we’re moving in a direction that’s hopefully up, gaining momentum versus some teams that are going to have to fight off teams like us that are breathing down their necks,” Porter said.
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And that’s despite the fact that 18 players are coming off an epic road trip on which they departed New England on Sunday for Guyana on the north coast of South America, played Alpha United in their inaugural CONCACAF Champions League game Tuesday and returned to the Rose City midday Wednesday. There were 10 players, however, who returned home after the Revolution game to prepare for Seattle.
“It’s worked out pretty well so far,” Porter said. “Obviously, Sunday we’ll have some fresh bodies, which is what the goal was at the end of the week -- to be able to go into a very important game against a rival and not be chewed up.”
It’s one positive narrative for the Timbers in a somewhat desperate situation.
They trail the Sounders, who are in a three-way tie for first in the Supporters’ Shield standings, by 11 points in the Western Conference standings and are two points outside of the fifth and final MLS Cup Playoff spot that is occupied by the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Timbers just so happen to follow up the Seattle game with a trip to Vancouver on Aug. 30.
“We’ve been playing with pretty much with that must-win – again not saying that every game is a must-win because you never know – but we’ve been playing that way since the beginning of the season, so it’s no different,” Porter said. “We’re going to fight like hell to get three points in every game from here on out starting with Seattle; we’re going to give everything we have.”
Dan Itel covers the Portland Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.