TUKWILA, Wash. — Portland Week has arrived for Sounders FC, and expectations are firmly established heading into the seventh edition of MLS’s fiercest rivalry.
“If you’ve got to motivate them for this game, then they need to play for a different club,” coach Sigi Schmid said flatly after Tuesday’s practice.
There is a new dynamic, however, heading into Sunday’s 7 p.m. game at CenturyLink Field, where a sold-out crowd of about 67,000 is expected. It’s the first time, at this point in the season, the Timbers are higher in the standings than the Sounders.
In fact, Portland (9-3-11) is tied for the best points-per-game average in the league, on pace for its first playoff berth and ranked No. 1 in the latest power rankings from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Seattle Times.
The Sounders have taken notice.
“Of course it makes us even hungrier to beat those guys and move up in the standings, as well,” said goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. “But Portland is always Portland. It doesn’t matter if we’re first and they’re last or the other way.”
When asked if things feel different looking up at the Timbers in the standings, assistant coach Brian Schmetzer winced. He has lived the rivalry nearly since its inception in 1975, having played for the Sounders in the old North American Soccer League from 1980-83 before coaching the team in the United Soccer Leagues from 2002-08.
While placement in the standings has changed — just like the coaches, players and leagues over the years — the emotions remain the same.
“I think that kind of supersedes the standings,” Schmetzer said. “Obviously we’re cognizant of where we are and where they are, and that certainly gives perhaps a bit of added oomph to our training this week, but at the end of the day, you can’t overcoach. You can’t get so excited, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, it’s Portland.’ You have to take it as a very important league match and make sure you prepare the team well.”
So motivation won’t be an issue. Urgency shouldn’t be, either.
The Sounders (10-8-4) are just two points ahead of their worst record as a franchise at the 22-game mark in the regular season. In a competitive Western Conference, Seattle hasn’t been in a playoff position on total points the past 10 weeks, although it has played two fewer games than the next two teams in the standings — the Galaxy and the Whitecaps.
Said midfielder Brad Evans: “We have to start getting results here pretty quick or else we’re going to start finding ourselves falling behind.”
And not just behind those insufferable Timbers.
Obafemi Martins wasn’t at practice Tuesday after taking a personal trip over the weekend while recovering from a sprained ankle. The forward is expected back Wednesday.
“It’s one missed practice,” Schmid said. “He’ll be fine and we’ll move on.”
Alex Caskey has returned to full practice but is still feeling the effects of ankle surgery last month. Steve Zakuani, who has missed the past 16 games, has also been participating in all the team’s drills but has still been feeling pain following sports hernia surgery in June.
Asked to describe the Timbers in one word, Schmid joked: “I can’t give you the word I’m thinking of.” Forward Eddie Johnson added: “I’ve got more than one word.”