When the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers face off at CenturyLink Field on Thursday (10:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), it will mark the fourth time the Cascadia rivals have met since the MLS restart.
But even with the travel restrictions that have necessitated the frequent matchups and the absence of the notoriously raucous fans in the stadium, the stakes for this one are plenty high. Thursday's match is a battle for the top spot on the Western Conference table, where the Sounders and Timbers are tied on 31 points.
It's a crucial match in terms of playoff positioning to be sure, but Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said on his Wednesday video call that the rivalry implications and bragging rights that have turned these derbies into arguably the premier rivalry in MLS very much remain a factor.
"Take the fans, put that aside. It matters to the players, it matters to the staff. It matters to the two organizations," Schmetzer said. "[Timbers coach] Gio [Savarese] is a nice a guy, I keep telling you guys, he's a really nice guy, great coach. He is. But don't think that the handshakes are very easy after we lose. Or don't think him having to come across to me after we beat them 3-0 down there -- don't think that was easy for him, because it's not.
"And the players on the field measure themselves against each other all the time in this rivalry. You can go back to the Zach Scotts, the Taylor Grahams, the Roger Levesques, the battles we've had in the USL days, you can fast-forward it to Gonzo [Pineda], Djimi [Traore], [Clint] Dempsey -- all of the great players that the Seattle Sounders franchise has had on their roster over the years, I'd be willing to bet if you asked them, they'd say the rivalry is a big deal."
The Sounders got the better of the first matchup between the sides down at Providence Park on August 23, riding a brace from Raul Ruidiaz to a 3-0 victory. But it's the Timbers who came out on top in the two subsequent matches, first winning 2-1 at CenturyLink Field on September 6 before taking a 1-0 result at Providence on September 23.
Portland have been one of the league's hotter teams in recent weeks, ripping off a five-game winning streak from September 19 to October 8 that shot them up to a dead heat with Seattle for the top spot in the West, but have gone 0-1-1 in their last two matches, losing to Real Salt Lake before a disappointing draw with LAFC that saw them yield a late equalizer.
Speaking on his call with the media this week, Saverese also said he still feels the intensity and energy that come with these games.
"Yes, it is a rivalry match and the mentality and the feeling is always the same: As soon as we step on the field we know we're playing Seattle and we want to beat them," Savarese said. "We want to make our fans proud wherever they're watching the match, and we're going to go against our rivals to make sure we try to get three points. These matches are always difficult. They have been playing well, they're always very competitive, we always try to be very competitive against them. I think inside the field nothing changes. Of course it's not the same either way when we go there and they have their fans or when they're here and we have our fans. I think that part you miss. But I think what happens inside the field, that competitive level, the competition, the willingness to beat your rival is always going to be there in our mind going into this match."
On top of that, there's the reality that a three-point result for either side would put them in the driver's seat for the coveted top spot in the West. The chance to do so against your biggest rival? Saverese said that just adds to the magnitude of Thursday's proceedings.
"Especially in this game, this moment, it means so much because we're battling for the top of the table," Savarese said. "So this is going to be an even bigger match and we're preparing accordingly."