One crucial thing enduring sports rivalries have is on-field protagonists.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees had Bucky Dent, Bill Lee, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez for fans of both teams to focus on — and let’s be honest, hate — for decades. More recently, the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers could count on Richard Sherman, Golden Tate, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll to keep things interesting.
But the Sounders and Portland Timbers? A storied 40-plus years of history to be sure, but few games lately of much importance. Sunday’s clash in Portland between the Western Conference’s No. 7 visiting Sounders and No. 6 hosting Timbers gives both sides — and their protagonists — a chance to reignite passions that lately may have waned.
“Every game against Portland is a rivalry,’’ Sounders midfielder and designated peace-disturber Osvaldo Alonso said Friday. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s now or in the past. It’s always going to be a battle.’’
That the Sounders have won six straight and gone unbeaten in nine while the Timbers have dropped three after a 15-match unbeaten streak could add spice to the festivities. Having a healthy and productive Alonso on the field Sunday — compared to the shell he looked like the last time these teams met — could also ignite some on-field sparks.
The Sounders once counted on Clint Dempsey as their contributor to this rivalry’s flash points, but he hasn’t played in a month and the team is tight-lipped about when — if ever — he’ll don the uniform again.
Take away Dempsey, and previously Alonso, from this derby and the sparks fizzle. Cristian Roldan has supplied some pest factor as a Sebastian Blanco foil, while Nicolas Lodeiro carries a bull’s-eye for Portland players to take liberties with, but they are relative newcomers.
Beyond tifo battles between supporters groups off the pitch, the biggest on-field drama of late was Dempsey ripping up a referee’s card in protest during a U.S. Open Cup match three years ago.
These days, neither squad seems focused as heavily on U.S. Open Cup success. Likely because the Timbers actually won an MLS Cup championship in 2015 while the Sounders matched that in 2016.
But in MLS action between them, the stakes have been lacking. And without protagonists to up the ante, a rivalry without stakes can lull big time.
Their only MLS playoff meeting resulted in a Portland triumph five years ago. Since then — despite tying for the Western Conference lead last year — the potential for a postseason rematch died when the Timbers were upset in the conference semifinals.
Midfielder Harry Shipp, asked Friday about any difference heading into Providence Park with the Sounders compared to his past squads, couldn’t come up with one. Shipp made his MLS debut in Portland with the Chicago Fire and said he’s always found the atmosphere there electric.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who lived the rivalry the past 30 years, tried to make its case. “This is our derby match, this is our three biggest games of the year.’’
For television hype purposes, sure. And Sunday’s nationally televised encounter will undoubtedly feature on-screen tales of regional conflict hyped up by marketing departments from both sides.
But as annoying as Timber Joey and his lumberjack routine can be to Sounders fans, he isn’t putting balls in the net. Any true rivalry needs on-field tension when stakes are highest.
But the Sounders the last two seasons played MLS Cup matches with bigger stakes than the Timbers posed. And this year, there appears more pure animosity between the Sounders and Atlanta United FC — the latter encroaching on the Rave Green’s mantle as an expansion franchise model — than with a Timbers squad that’s shed coach Caleb Porter, Darlington Nagbe and other loathed villains.
Still, there are moments: Dempsey’s hat trick in Portland in 2014 to erase a 4-2 deficit and secure a 4-4 draw. Last year, Dempsey’s stoppage-time goal at Providence Park gave the Sounders a 2-2 draw.
This season, Portland finally won a regular season match at CenturyLink Field, taking down the Sounders 3-2 on June 30. The Sounders haven’t lost since, surging right on the Timbers’ heels.
But the Sounders also haven’t won at Providence Park in four years. That alone provides proof of a lingering rivalry; of a head-to-head equalizer in which venturing into the opponent’s den is intimidating and wipes out any edge the standings might suggest.
“The atmosphere down there is pretty good,’’ Schmetzer said. “So, there are a lot of reasons, a lot of things that stoke our flame. They get us going.’’
So much so that the Sounders’ visiting section of mostly Emerald City Supporters will be allowed in 90 minutes before kickoff to prevent confrontation with Timbers Army counterparts.
“The two groups go back and forth and so there’s a lot of energy in the building,’’ Schmetzer said.
Will that carry to the field? Having Alonso back closer to “honey badger” form — for the first time in nearly two years — can’t hurt.
“He’s in a good run of form, he’s healthy, so yes, it’s vital for us,’’ Schmetzer said. “Just like Chad (Marshall) is. Just like Nico (Lodeiro). Just like the rest of the guys. That will be a motivated group. Ozzie will be motivated because he gets up for big games.’’
Seven years ago, Alonso scored in the 83rd minute to secure a 3-2 comeback win at Portland, the first Sounders victory there in MLS play. They have just one 2014 win at Providence Park since.
A victory by either team Sunday won’t hurt the rivalry any; given it could throw a serious crimp into respective playoff plans. In reality though, the best derby jump-start could be a fourth meeting between these sides come November beyond the three regularly scheduled.
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