By MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore.- Heading into their Sept. 29th match with the New York Red Bulls, the Seattle Sounders needed a victory to clinch a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs. Four games and 15 days later, the club is still searching for that victory and a spot in the postseason.
Meanwhile, their Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers, have used victories over three conference rivals to jump from the middle of the Western Conference pack to the top of the conference. With just two matches remaining in the season, the regional adversaries are separated by just two points, but their recent form could not be further apart.
Seattle has lost three straight matches by a combined score of 10-2 and has taken a nosedive just weeks before the postseason is set to begin. Between international call-ups, injuries, suspensions, and tactical decisions by head coach Sigi Schmid, the Sounders have dealt with numerous lineup changes for recent matches.
In fact, after Seattle’s 4-1 loss to Vancouver, Schmid made six changes to his starting lineup for the match against the Timbers, the most notable being the inclusion of 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann over Michael Gspurning in goal.
“We just felt with Michael [Gspurning] it was just a situation that sometimes you just got to step back and view it from the outside,” Schmid said.
The switch was the first time in the Sounders MLS history that the club made the decision to bench a healthy starting goalkeeper. Gspurning, who was a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012, had given up nine goals in his previous two starts.
While Clint Dempsey returned to the starting lineup after dealing with a hamstring injury, the American International suffered a shoulder injury early in the match and was substituted in the second half. In an injury-filled 471 minutes since returning to MLS, Dempsey is yet to tally a goal or an assist.
Dempsey joins Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, who are both hampered by groin injuries, as injured attacking players for Seattle. If the trio is able to return to health quickly, the Sounders might be a dangerous team in the postseason.
The Sounders, however, still haven’t clinched their postseason ticket just yet. A Seattle win or San Jose loss in the final two matches will clinch a fifth-straight trip to the postseason.
Next up for the club is a road match at FC Dallas on Saturday. Dallas was eliminated from playoff contention over the weekend. If Seattle is unable to secure a spot Saturday, the club’s final chance will be against the LA Galaxy, in what is the last match of the 2013 MLS regular season.
Portland has also dealt with its fair share of injuries and call-ups during the homestretch of the 2013 season. Diego Valeri, who is second player ever to notch eight goals and 12 assists in his first MLS season, missed the Timbers 1-0 victory with an adductor injury. Despite missing the Argentine Designated Player, Portland was able to grab its fourth straight home win.
If and when Valeri returns, Portland might have its full attacking arsenal for the first time since the beginning of the season. Rodney Wallace and Ryan Johnson will return from international duty prior to Saturday’s match with RSL, while Frederic Piquionne made his first league appearance in more than two months when he came on as a substitute Sunday. Piquionne suffered an ankle injury in Portland’s Aug. 3rd match with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Timbers, who are on a six-game unbeaten run, are in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the MLS Western Conference. A victory against Real Salt Lake Saturday would clinch a top-three seed for the club, while an additional win at Chivas USA on Oct. 26 would guarantee the No.1 seed and a tie at the top of the overall league table. Despite the huge stakes, Porter is treating the next two matches like each of the first 32 league games the club has played this season.
“My mentality is the same mentality I’ve had all year. It’s literally every game is important,” Porter said. “I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but every game we’re going for three points.”
While Portland has the best home record this season and hasn’t lost a conference match at Jeld-Wen Field since July 2012, Real Salt Lake will be no pushover. In addition to being in second place, the Utah club is undefeated in three matches, in all competitions, against Portland this season.