TUKWILA — Three years ago, Kenny Cooper was part of the Portland Timbers’ inaugural season in Major League Soccer. Not only that, the forward, who was back stateside after spending most of his career in Europe, led the Timbers in scoring that year.
But on Saturday, Cooper, now in his first season with the Seattle Sounders, knows as well as anyone that nostalgia won’t mean squat to Timbers fans once the whistle blows.
“It’s always good to go back and see some old friends, old faces, and have an opportunity to show appreciation to the fans for supporting you,” said Cooper, who came to Seattle in an offseason trade. “But once that whistle blows, it’s all business and it’s a battle out there.”
In 2009, Steve Zakuani was the first draft pick in Seattle Sounders history, and early in the 2011 season, he looked like one of the league’s best young players. He suffered a devastating leg injury six games into the season, however, and has yet to stay healthy for an entire season since. And after his rookie contract expired following the 2013 season, Zakuani found himself moving three hours south to play for Seattle’s biggest rivals (The Timbers declined to make Zakuani available to Seattle-area media this week).
Zakuani, who is battling a hamstring injury and is questionable for Saturday’s game, but whether he plays or not, there are sure to be some hugs and pleasantries exchanged before kickoff. But again, once the game kicks off, all those friendships will be forgotten.
“Well we love Zakuani, so it’ll be tough to see if Zach Scott ever gets a hold of him and kicks him,” assistant coach Brian Schmetzer said with a laugh. “That would be tough for me to watch, but Zakuani’s a tough kid, he’ll make do.”
A new twist has been added for the latest chapter of Major League Soccer’s best rivalry; namely, the inevitable roster turnover with both teams has led to the point where significant players on both sides have switched sides, most notably in the form of Zakuani and Cooper, though Cooper played in New York and Dallas between Cascadia stops. And with Portland’s starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts serving a suspension, former Sounders backup Andrew Weber will get the start in goal for the Timbers.
“It just spices up the rivalry,” Schmetzer said of players changing sides.
The two teams did see each other in a preseason game in Tucson, at which point Scott told Zakuani that, “he looked terrible in that color of green.” And even if there are now players on both teams who call each other friends, nobody expects the rivalry to lose any intensity.
“No, it doesn’t feel different to me, I don’t think it feels different to them,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s something that’s always going to be there because of the historical tradition between the cities and the tradition that goes back all the way to ‘74 in the NALS. It’s not something that’s going to change. Just because you had (Luis) Figo go from Barcelona to Real Madrid, I don’t think that changed that rivalry at all.”
Though it would be best if Schmid’s example isn’t 100 percent accurate. When Figo returned to Barcelona’s Camp Nou with Real Madrid in 2002, a pig’s head was among the objects thrown on the field, according to media reports at the time.
Cooper isn’t expecting adulation from the Timbers Army—though he’s probably not going to have to dodge a pig’s head either—but he is excited to experience one of the best rivalries in American sports from the other side.
“It was special to be a part of their inaugural season,” said Cooper, who scored his first goal as a Sounder in last weekend’s loss. “There was an incredible buzz and it was a memorable year, a really special year. The fans treated me really well, it was a fun thing to be a part of.
“It’s one of the most exciting games o the year, a lot of people mark this one on their calendars, even people who aren’t fans of either team. It’s always an amazing atmosphere, both teams are well supported. It should be a lot of fun.”
Schmid said Clint Dempsey is expected to play Saturday despite going a full 90 minutes for the U.S. national team Wednesday, though the Sounders coach did not specify if Dempsey would start … Midfielder Brad Evans, who has missed the past two games with a contusion on his calf, is likely out again this week, Schmid said, calling Evan’s chances of playing, “very small.”… The suspension of Portland defender Michael Harrington was overturned by an independent review panel Thursday, meaning he will be able to play against Seattle despite being issued a red card in last weekend’s game against Dallas.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.