SEATTLE — When Major League Soccer decided that the regular-season’s third week would feature matchups of the league’s best rivalries, they made sure Seattle facing Portland was the centerpiece.
It might seem a little early in the schedule, but the heated competition in “Cascadia” begins tonight when the Sounders play host to the Timbers.
“This is a great challenge early in the season for us,” Seattle’s Eddie Johnson said. “We couldn’t ask for a better challenge.”
“Rivalry Week” has some awkward matchups that don’t fit the bill of heated rivals — Kansas City vs. Chicago and Columbus vs. San Jose for example. For the most part, however, the week is filled with marquee meetings and clearly the main event is tonight’s match between Portland and Seattle.
“I played in some rivalries when I was in Europe and this is a pretty special game,” Johnson said. “As players these are the games you dream about playing in, scoring goals in.”
The match is the first installment in the fight for control of the Cascadia Cup. It features a unique reunion between new Portland coach Caleb Porter and a pair of his former star pupils in college, Seattle’s Steve Zakuani and DeAndre Yedlin. Porter was a highly successful coach at the University of Akron before making the leap to the MLS when the Timbers job became available last year.
Porter was the coach who brought Zakuani from England to the United States, and the one who convinced Yedlin to travel from the Northwest to play collegiately at Akron. The relationships are special, but will understandably be put aside today.
“I’ve known Caleb for a long time and obviously he’s a friend. It’s going to be strange playing against him, but it’s part of the job,” Zakuani said. “I knew one day he was going to come to the pros. I’m happy for him in that sense, but Saturday night is just another game for me. (I’ve) got to block that out and just play the game.”
Porter won’t need an introduction to the fierce nature of the rivalry and the buzzing venue he’ll be coming into tonight. He was at the Sounders game when Zakuani made his professional debut. He later attended a Timbers game in their inaugural season, long before becoming Portland’s coach.
“I was in both stadiums live and I was able to witness firsthand what it was like,” Porter said. “When this job became an option, a big part of it was the atmosphere and the games, and, just overall, the passion of the Cascadia region.”
Seattle has two tasks today: Erase the taste of a disappointing season-opening home loss to Montreal and start down the road of re-claiming the Cascadia Cup.
Seattle’s opening loss to the Impact was filled with frustrating missed opportunities. Seattle finally converted some of those chances in the second half of its stirring rally to beat Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night. The Sounders scored three times in the second half to become the first MLS team to oust a Mexican club in the knockout portion of the competition.
“We wouldn’t trade away the victory on Tuesday for anything, but in a way it’s good to have this game because it requires all of your attention right away,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said.
Seattle is well aware of the importance of getting three points for the MLS standings, but also in the Cascadia Cup race. The Sounders have the advantage this season with four of six Cascadia matches at home, having to go to Portland and Vancouver only once. Vancouver also gets Portland at home twice this season.
Portland took the Cascadia Cup a year ago thanks to a 2-1 win and 1-1 draw at home with Seattle and a late-season 1-0 win at Vancouver. Porter is looking forward to the experience, especially after the Timbers got just one point out of two home games to begin the MLS season.
“If you’re looking at the past and the accomplishments of the Sounders, they’re clearly the team that’s favored,” Porter said. “The nice thing is that the games aren’t decided on the past, they’re decided on what happens over the course of 90 minutes. And even though we haven’t won there, I’ve never coached there and there’s a lot of players on this team who have never been there in a Timbers uniform.”