Let me be the first to admit that I was wrong about this 2021 Seattle Sounders team.

I spent a couple of weeks lamenting the loss of experienced players in the offseason, namely Gustav Svenson and Kelvin Leerdam. Then the loss of Jordan Morris, first to an overseas loan and then to an injury, also left me feeling uneasy about what this team could do this season. But a formation change, three good results and a few intelligent tactical innovations later, I’m as hopeful as I’ve ever been about what the Sounders can achieve this year.

On Sunday, they face their toughest test of this young season when they come up against the Portland Timbers on Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes) in what’s still the best rivalry in this country. It belongs in the conversation with the North London, Merseyside, Milan, Old Firm and some of the other top derbies in world football, but we can have that debate some other time. For now, I want to focus on the three things the Timbers will need to do to pick up the points and kick start their season.

1
Win wide battles

The 3-4-1-2 formation has allowed the Sounders to dominate opponents in the wide channels because of how they use their wing backs. Both Brad Smith and Alex Roldan are excellent crossers of the ball and have been involved in a lot of the positive play Seattle have produced through three games.

Roldan is a more traditional crosser from the right, where he’ll hug the touchline and whip balls all day if given time and space. Smith, on the other hand, is at his best when he’s running onto a through ball in the inside left position and can pick out runners in the box with either a cross played along the ground or one that’s clipped to the far post.

The Timbers will have to force both of Seattle’s wide players to do more defending than they’d like and there are a couple of ways they can do this. The first is to play the whole game on the front foot and make it a priority to dominate possession while forcing the Sounders to take up a deeper position than they’d like. The issue with this approach is that it’s the complete opposite of how Portland have played any time they’ve been successful against the Sounders.

Given that, their best approach will be to sit back and absorb pressure and then get out on the counter. This is something they do extremely well. When getting out on the counter, they have to make it a point to attack the very spaces Roldan and Smith leave exposed when the Sounders attack. If the likes of Diego Valeri, Yimmi Chara and Dairon Asprilla can consistently get in behind Smith and Roldan, then Seattle’s wingbacks will become more conservative in how freely they attack and this will neutralize what’s been one of the Sounders’ greatest strengths so far this season.

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2
Track Cristian Roldan's movement

A lot has been said about Cristian Roldan ever since he burst onto the scene in Seattle, but what I’ve been impressed with in 2021 is how he has added even more to his game. In the absence of the irreplaceable Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian has been deployed in a more advanced role — the No. 10 position, if you will — and he has played it in his own unique way to devastating effect.

He’s not a playmaker who dictates the game's tempo with probing passes or by dribbling past defenders, but he’s great at making off-the-ball runs from deep and in behind the backline. He lurks in between the lines and at the right moment explodes beyond the last line of defense to catch unsuspecting opponents off guard. Once he gets in behind, he can then combine with the forwards or wide players to create 2-v-1 situations for the Sounders.

These runs are very hard to track and require a midfielder who is disciplined and aware of what’s happening in order to keep up. Thankfully for the Timbers, they have just the man for the job in Diego Chara, who (alongside Osvaldo Alonso) is the best defensive midfielder to have played in MLS. Chara will have to be at his brilliant best to track Roldan’s running and take away one of the Sounders’ biggest strengths. I played with Chara and I know he relishes challenges. He will take it upon himself to nullify not only Roldan, but Joao Paulo as well as he tries to dominate the midfield battle.

It’s going to take a team effort to stop the Sounders, but there’s no question that Diego Chara’s performance — especially in how he tracks Roldan’s runs — will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game.

3
Drag Nouhou out of position

At the end of last season, I went on record and declared Nouhou Tolo a top-five left back in the league. I’m going to go one step further now and declare him a top-five defender in the league — regardless of specific position along the backline. He's been exceptional in the past eight months and has exceeded expectations in his new role as a left-sided center back in a back three.

I knew Nouhou would relish the physical challenge and 1-v-1 battles his new role would provide, but I was skeptical on whether he would be positionally disciplined enough to not get dragged out of position as he went looking for the physical battles he’s accustomed to. I needn’t have worried; he’s been exemplary in every way, especially with his positioning.

With that said, Nouhou’s bread and butter remains his ability to shut things down 1-v-1 and win his physical duels. His positioning and tactical awareness have improved greatly, but remain the one area of his game I would try to attack. If Portland’s forwards go looking for a physical battle against Nouhou, they’ll lose. Their best bet is to be extremely active with their off-ball movement and running in order to force Nouhou to look over his shoulder and run back toward his own goal. If they can get Nouhou to lose his connection to the other two center backs as he gets dragged out wide all afternoon trying to put out fires, then gaps will open up for Felipe Mora and others to run into.

This is what Portland did so well when they beat the Sounders last year in Seattle — they had tremendous off-ball running from deep and on the counter. This is what needs to happen on Sunday because it’ll force Nouhou to engage with a part of his game — tracking runners and looking over his shoulder while attempting to stay connected to the backline — that isn’t as strong as his lockdown defending and physical abilities.

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Final verdict

It’s impossible to predict the outcome of this game because recent form, home-field advantage and other factors that normally help to determine outcomes go out of the window completely. However, if the Timbers can focus on the three areas I mentioned, they will take away a lot of what Seattle does so well and give themselves a great chance of walking away with the points.

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