As I expected, nothing definitive was decided from this edition of the best rivalry in MLS. With that said, we certainly learned a lot from Thursday's battle between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers for the number one seed in the West. Let's get going.
Crucial first goal
The Sounders struggle when the Timbers get the first goal. They struggle because the Timbers are at their very best when they have something to protect. For most of this game we saw a masterclass in defensive organization and denial of space from Gio Savarese’s men. They took away what the Sounders wanted to do which was get in behind in the wide areas and let Jordan Morris loose. It was a team effort of course, but the effort was led by Diego Chara who covered every blade of turf at CenturyLink Field and offered tremendous protection to the back four.
Watch: Andres Flores gives Portland the lead against Seattle
Morris is having a fantastic season and has ripped several defenses to shreds but he has had a hard time replicating his best form against the Timbers. Portland have not implemented anything groundbreaking, they’ve simply made it a priority to deny space in behind. They are happy to see Morris take shots from 30 yards out — they just don’t want him running onto through balls because once he does that, the Sounders find another level.
It’s no secret that Seattle struggle most against teams that sit very deep and counter — something the Timbers do well. Yes, Seattle eventually got the equalizer on Thursday, but that strike in the third minute of second-half injury time was their first shot on target of the match. Teams that try to go toe to toe with Seattle usually end up getting run off the pitch. In the final 15 minutes, once tired legs kicked in defensively and the previously denied spade became available, Morris came to life and the Sounders looked like they were going to win the game.
There is every chance these two teams will see each other again in the playoffs and it will be important for the Sounders to prioritize getting that first goal. If the Timbers have to chase the game, they will leave gaps at the back and play into the Sounders' hands. But if the Timbers score first, history suggests the Sounders will have a very tough time breaking them down.
Attacking depth vs. attacking talent
The Sounders attack is better than the Timbers attack. Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz would start for Portland and maybe only Diego Valeri would start for the Sounders. Jeremy Ebobisse, who missed Thursday's game with a concussion, has an outside chance. With that said, the Timbers attack is definitely deeper.
Even though his replacement Will Bruin got the late equalizer, it was clear to see that Seattle missed Ruidiaz. What he offers inside the 18-yard box is not easily replicated and for large parts of the game the Sounders lacked the answers in the final third that he would normally provide. The same would be true if Lodeiro or Morris were missing — they are very key players and their absence brings the level down.
Watch: Will Bruin equalizes for Seattle
Before he tore his ACL in early September, Sebastian Blanco was in the MVP conversation and on his way to taking over Valeri as the most influential attacker on the team, yet the Timbers have hardly missed him. Ebobisse has been in fantastic form but was not missed against the Sounders. Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe Mora have both found goals recently and offer different options in attack. In essence, the Timbers are capable of absorbing the loss of keys guys in attack without losing their overall level — they are simply deeper.
The lack of depth in attack won’t affect the Sounders as long as they stay healthy. At full strength, they can consistently produce a kind of football that very few teams can — the kind of football we saw in the last 15 minutes where they put you under so much pressure that you’ll eventually crack. They attack the wide spaces incredibly well, Lodeiro and Morris have a great understanding and are able to find each other in dangerous spots.
These two teams deservedly sit in the top two positions in the West, and the deciding factor on who goes further in the playoffs may come down to whether pure talent can win out against depth.
Key differences between the teams
Coming into this game, I felt that the edge the Sounders had over the Timbers was the defense. Portland have conceded 13 more goals and have often looked vulnerable defensively. Offensively, both teams put out similar outputs but the Sounders typically look better defensively. That wasn’t the case in this game. The Timbers showed a defensive resilience that I haven’t seen from them much this season. Larrys Mabiala was a tower at the back and if he can maintain this kind of form, he will give his team a great chance at the top seed.
Yet while both teams are very similar there are some key differences.
Strengths: The Sounders play better with the ball. They need the ball to activate the talents of their most dangerous players. They can play on the counter when it’s needed — just look at their amazing win vs LAFC in the playoffs last season — but they much prefer to be in control of possession.
The Timbers are at their best without a large possession percentage. They prefer to sit deep and attack on the counter — it’s hard to argue against that strategy when you have Diego Valeri spraying balls into space like he does.
Weaknesses: Seattle have had a fantastic season and have been breathtaking at times when facing teams that want to go head to head. Their struggles have come against deep-lying teams. It’s the best strategy to neutralize Morris and every time the Sounders have struggled this year it’s been against teams that employ this tactic.
The Timbers' main struggles — despite their great showing in this game — are still on the defensive side. When the Sounders applied pressure in the last 15 minutes, Portland struggled to contain the explosive attack. They’ve conceded more goals than four of the other teams in the top six and when the Sounders took it up a notch, they looked vulnerable.
All in all, I believe we saw the two best teams in the West today and one of these two will be in the MLS Cup Final.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.