TUKWILA, Wash. – The first leg of an MLS playoff series can often turn into a grind-it-out, defensive battle.
But for the Seattle Sounders, Leg 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal matchup in the 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs against the Portland Timbers (5:30 pm ET | ESPN, TSN5, TVAS2) doesn’t feel like it’s lining up to be that type of occasion.
The first reason is obvious: Seattle’s attack has been firing on all cylinders for much of the second of the season, fueled by playmaking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and red-hot striker Raul Ruidiaz. But there’s also a key absence in the Portland back line in the form of starting center back Larrys Mabiala, who will be suspended for Sunday’s opener due to a red card he picked up in the Knockout Round against FC Dallas.
It’s an absence that might leave the likes of Ruidiaz and Lodeiro licking their chops ahead of Sunday’s opener, although Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said on Saturday he wasn’t planning on having his team sit back regardless.
“The strategy is the same,” Schmetzer said. “We were going to attack whether [Mabiala] was on the field or not. You have to.
“With the importance of road goals, sometimes the advantage can swing both ways. If you [don’t get a road goal] and then they come up here and have the advantage – there’s lots of little nuances that make things exciting and challenging for all the tacticians at home watching. So we understand the importance of trying to play and score goals [in the first leg].”
Coming out firing usually always come with the risk of getting exposed on the other end of the field, a balance Schmetzer said his team will need to be cognizant of managing when it comes to bottling up Portland’s always-dangerous counterattack. In order to do that, Seattle will likely have to contend with a different face than the Timbers fielded in any of the three regular-season matches between the sides in 2018.
That would be 21-year-old forward Jeremy Ebobisse, who seems to have locked down the starting forward job for the Timbers over teammate Samuel Armenteros. Expecting Ebobisse to shoulder a lot of the attacking load against the Sounders’ experienced back line might seem like a tall order on paper, but Schmetzer pointed out on Saturday that there’s a reason the young forward earned more minutes as the season progressed.
“Credit to the kid. He’s come on and done a good job,” Schmetzer said. “Whoever they put out there, we’ll be ready for him. We’ll watch all the film. We know Portland pretty well, so we’re not concerned about it. We’ll prepare as best we can.
“Gio [Savarese] has done a fantastic job. He’s not afraid to plug and play guys. Ebobisse is a young kid and he’s got some money on the hook for some other guys that are on the bench. So he’s not afraid to play young guys and he’s not afraid to tinker with his lineup choices to get the right mix.”
Either way, Schmetzer said he expects Sunday’s match to be close and hotly contested, as they usually are between the Cascadia rivals. In the three matches the Sounders and Timbers played during the regular season, all three were decided by a single goal, with the final aggregate scoreline coming out to 4-3 in favor of Portland.
“You know it’s a rivalry match,” Schmetzer said. “The three games earlier in the year were all settled by one goal. … They were all tight games, rivalry matches, so we’ll be up for it.”