The Cascadia rivalry is one of the truths that endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Strip away the stadium, the fans, the media, even the traditional rules of soccer, and the disdain the Sounders FC and Portland Timbers have for each other remained.
It was evident in late March when the Timbers traveled to Starfire Sports in Tukwila for a pair of preseason matches on the Sounders’ practice field. The unorthodox setting and insignificance of the outcome didn’t temper anything. Sounders midfielder Nico Lodeiro rushed to Brad Smith’s defense after Portland midfielder Diego Valeri appeared to kick Smith after an already tough tackle. And Sounders forward Will Bruin dealt with Timbers defender Dario Zuparic clawing at his back to play balls. The referee even showed multiple yellow cards.
“I love this (rivalry) game against Portland because it’s organic,” said Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, who’s in his eighth season with the club. “It’s got geographical history behind it. It’s not forced.”
The pandemic tried to quash the magic of this derby. Safety precautions to guard against spread of the virus meant fans couldn’t attend in 2020. MLS also limited travel for its return of the regular season, scheduling Portland and Seattle to play each other four times, which could’ve diluted the fervor.
A semblance of normalcy will return Sunday when Portland hosts Seattle at Providence Park. For the first time since August 2019, fans will be in attendance for the rivalry match that will also air nationally on ABC at noon. Government protocols limit the crowd size to 15% of the stadium’s approximate 25,000-seat capacity.
“Regardless to the fans, these games have been always competitive,” Timbers coach Gio Savarese said. “These games never disappoint, but when the fans are in the stands, there’s a big difference. There’s more energy. There’s more passion. There’s a building that you feel has an extra component that brings these games to a different level and that’s huge. Even though we don’t have full capacity, those few that come in, you can hear them.”
Portland (1-2-0) will use the boost from their fans to shake off the slow start to the 2021 season. In addition to conceding six goals during league play, the Timbers lost 3-1 to Club America in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals on Wednesday.
The preferred first-team players saw the bulk of the minutes for Portland in the tournament match. The club was already dealing with injuries, so the lineup Savarese fields against Seattle might not be the Timbers’ strongest.
The preseason matches do ease some of Portland’s concerns, according to Savarese. The Timbers played against the early version of the Sounders’ new two-forward system, although Raul Ruidiaz wasn’t part of the matches. The Peruvian has scored four of Seattle’s eight goals this season.
“I don’t care,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of Portland possibly limping into the match. “Champions League hangover, whatever it is, I’ve been messaging that this actually could be the best thing for Portland because they’re coming back to league play and who do they get first? Well, it’s their archrivals and they’re going to have fans in the building. They’re going to get pumped up. They could push past with a good victory against the Sounders.
“There are so many story lines for Gio (Savarese) to latch onto to get his team motivated. Mine has been one of warning. Yeah, we’ve played well the first three games, but this is a tough week.”
Seattle (2-0-1) sits atop the Western Conference and has yet to concede a goal within the flow of play. That’s without Lodeiro due to a quad injury. He substituted in for the final 24 minutes of the 3-0 win against the L.A. Galaxy at Lumen Field last week.
Schmetzer wouldn’t commit to Lodeiro starting against the Timbers but said the team captain didn’t suffer any setbacks from his season debut. The coach will have to monitor everyone’s playing time as the Sounders enter their first of three matches in an eight-day span.
Seattle will travel to play San Jose on Wednesday and host Los Angeles FC at Lumen Field on May 16. One glimpse to the Sounders pulling through unscathed is the roster displaying quality depth with multiple key changes in the lineup to start the season. The Rave Green is also defending well with Frei collecting two shutouts and nine saves in the opening three matches.
“If you put players in positions where they can utilize their strengths the most, they’re going to enjoy it,” Frei said. “They’re going to be successful in those positions and the more successful you are, you’re having a good old time.”
And a good time before fans during a national broadcast against your rival is a welcomed return.
“It’s what you dream about as a kid,” said Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella, who was last in goal for Portland when the Timbers ousted the Sounders in the 2018 MLS playoffs. “You want to be part of rivalry games where the fans are going nuts. … For us to have that, especially when we thought it wasn’t going to be there and now we get it back, it’s a lot. We’re very excited.”