The view from Seattle on Saturday's Cascadia Cup showdown in The Emerald City
One would have thought that either the historical nature of the rivalry or the fact that the fixture launches its first MLS reincarnation might be the newsworthy note, as Vancouver Whitecaps FC prepare their short hop down Interstate 5 to Seattle. Certainly, those narratives wove lines around and inside the visit of Portland to The Emerald City three weeks ago.
Two things have prevented that becoming the main narrative this time. Firstly, much of the conversation about the Cascadia rivalry has already been written about that previous visit.
Secondly, Whitecaps FC have more pressing matters. A change in coach followed a winless streak and much of the media narrative now surrounds whether Tom Soehn can find that winning touch from opening day.
For Seattle though, the opposite is true. A rocky start has been followed by a good run of results, despite injury adversity. Although no performance has quite hit the very high standard demanded by their fan base, in recent weeks either performance or result have been satisfactory - just on one occasion neither, though not yet both. But many feel that day is coming.
Six points from trips to the altitude of Colorado and Salt Lake represent superb results, while the overall team performance in Chicago was well received, despite the goalless draw. Youngsters Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito have been warmly applauded for their individual performances and are now both more likely than not to start, or at least pose head coach Sigi Schmid serious selection problems when other players recover either form or fitness.
Neagle scored a wonder goal in Salt Lake, which proved to be the game winner after the hosts pulled it back to 2-1 late on. Fucito is knocking at the door of a goal glut and Schmid now seems open to pairing him with either Nate Jaqua in a ‘little and large’ combination or even with Fredy Montero in a duo that would necessitate keeping the ball on the deck.
Jaqua had been improving game-on-game and he and Fucito were the chosen starters for the last two matches in Chicago and Salt Lake. Jaqua did not have quite as good a game as recent progress may have predicted in Chicago and lasted only nine minutes after the interval. Montero’s contribution did receive praise though. Montero and Fucito started against FC Dallas in the match before but a mammoth amount of possession did not equate to either a goal or even a stellar string of saves from Kevin Hartman.
This at least gives Schmid options up front. He is known to believe that a large forward can give defenders a serious buffeting for 70 minutes, which a quicker and fresher substitute can then exploit. That would suggest Jaqua who would relish a physical battle with Jay DeMerit or even Greg Janicki, should he displace Mouloud Akloul. Then again, the key moment in the win against Salt Lake was a talented centre half making an error, as he saw Fucito about to outpace him.
Pausing on that thought briefly, in season surprise Tyson Wahl, Sounders FC have finally found a player that can deliver a dangerous set-piece into the danger zone. You could not blame Schmid for wanting to stick with the lanky Jaqua, while he is winning many of those first headers and creating a bucket of scoring chances for his colleagues. The recent arrival on trial of the 6-foot-5 Irishman Cillian Sheridan suggests maximizing that route to goal is still in Schmid’s mind.
At the back, Schmid now seems positively blessed compared to up front. Sounders FC have conceded just 13 goals in 15 league games, and only once in the last eleven, has their defence been breached twice.
Kasey Keller has been making not only the saves he refers to as ‘regulation’, but some outstanding additional saves too. James Riley continues to be as dependable a player as a coach could want at right back and in Pat Ianni, Jhon Hurtado, and Jeff Parke, he has three centre halves that would make most MLS starting XI's. Parke even had the nerve to add a game-winning goal against Sporting Kansas City. When your headache is who to leave out, rather than who to include, things can’t be all bad. The injury curse has by and large bypassed the defensive players.
Schmid though has been juggling with semi-fit players in midfield, at least in front of the irrepressible defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
Brad Evans, Erik Friberg, Mauro Rosales, and Alvaro Fernandez have rotated in and out of the side as minor injuries and ailments have dictated. Of them, the Argentinian Rosales has perhaps impressed fans most, although Brad Evans has been finding the net.
Finding the net is one of the few areas where the two sides have some semblance of at least one similarity. Both scored more goals against Toronto FC than in any other game. The difference was that for Sounders FC, the result did not create a false dawn.
The 'Caps now face the trip south under entirely different circumstances, as they would have both envisioned and wished when the fixture list came out. New head coach Soehn has been handed a promise list to fulfill with one promise on it, to produce wins and do so quickly. With a full week to prepare for the first time, his side will be scrutinized perhaps a little more than in the previous two games.
Into that environment, comes the local derby factor.
It is safe to say that when one side is on form and the other not, anything that makes the game extraordinary or different benefits the off-form side.
On the other hand, you would rather be the better side going into a derby.
Soehn and his players will be able to wipe much of the slate of the poor set of results clean with an away win in Seattle. Motivation should not be an issue.
The key for Sounders FC may well be to continue to focus on those things that have been increasingly done right in recent weeks.
Steve Clare is editor of Prost Amerika Soccer, which covers the game across the Cascadia region, and is also communications officer of the North American Soccer Reporters, which selects the MLS Player of the Week, among other duties.