TUKWILA, Wash. — The rivalry between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers is one built mostly out of physical proximity. Especially in the rivalry's MLS era, the Sounders have been the ones high up in the standings and advancing deep into the US Open Cup, while the Timbers have mostly struggled on the field.
So far, that's been turned on its head this year.
The Timbers sit on 39 points, five points clear of the Sounders, who have played two fewer games heading into Sunday's matchup (10 pm ET, ESPN2). In the six previous MLS meetings, the Sounders have had an average lead of about 10 points on their archrivals. In fact, this is the latest Portland have been ahead in the standings.
"Things happen," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told reporters on Thursday. "Things changed. Nothing stays permanent forever. This time we're looking at them. We know we still have games in hand. We know we have to perform and we're at home and we need to make the home game count for us."
Not that the Sounders needed any extra fuel going into this one.
"If you have to motivate them for this game, then they need to play for a different club," Schmid said.
The rivalry stretches back to 1975 when the Timbers joined the NASL one year after the Sounders, it continued through the USL days and finally back to MLS. By most accounting, there have been 80 meetings between Seattle and Portland soccer teams. The Sounders have historically been the better team during each era and hold a 42-29-9 head-to-head advantage.
The teams have rarely been this close in the standings, which only seems to have heightened the anticipation.
"It's massive," Sounders midfielder Brad Evans said. "I think it's what defines MLS at this point. I think it's this rivalry right here. It's Portland vs. Seattle. Everybody will be watching.
"You start to get the rumblings and it's difficult not to get too excited too early and feel the butterflies, so you kind of want to step away a little bit and focus on practice and focus on things we have to do better facing a good team in Portland."
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While a Sounders win wouldn't erase the gap between the two teams, there seems to be a sense that the game could have a larger psychological effect.
"It can be a season changer," goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said. "You can take so much energy out of a win. The whole atmosphere can change to a positive thing and it's great. That's what's great about a derby, what you gain in this game can help you way more in other games."