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Sounders host Portland in premier conference match

Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey, scoring  against Minnesota United during last Sunday’s match, is often at his best against this weekend’s rival, Portland. (Bettina Hansen / AP)
Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey, scoring against Minnesota United during last Sunday’s match, is often at his best against this weekend’s rival, Portland. (Bettina Hansen / AP)

SEATTLE – Nothing like a first-place battle in late August to throw some added spice on to a Sounders rivalry with the Portland Timbers that doesn’t need much script-making to begin with.

It’s the first time the teams have played a head-to-head match this late in the season when ranked 1-2 in the Western Conference.

For Sounders star Clint Dempsey – leading the series with nine goals scored since 2013 – Sunday night’s CenturyLink Field battle for supremacy in the standings has him revved up even more than usual.

“It’s a game that means a lot because of where we sit at the table,’’ Dempsey said. “We’ve got to make sure we get the right result and stay ahead of them.”

Dempsey scored in stoppage time two months ago in Portland to help the Sounders avoid defeat and salvage a 2-2 draw. His team has yet to lose since, going 6-0-4 for a club-record 10-game unbeaten streak, with Dempsey scoring seven goals in his last seven games – including one in Gold Cup action with the U.S. Men’s National Team during that stretch.

“It’s a good time here,” Dempsey said. “I think it’s the most depth since I’ve been here and it’s exciting.”

The Sounders got a solid outing from newcomer Victor Rodriguez of Spain last Wednesday in a lackluster 1-1 draw at Vancouver. The Sounders have tried to quickly forget that result – in which they dominated but failed to put the game away by adding to their lead – by focusing on the Portland contest.

They’ll enter it with the kind of depth, as Dempsey alluded to, that has forced several starting type players – Rodriguez and Will Bruin among them – to the bench at times.

Dempsey has always seemed to save his best for the Portland series, whether it’s putting balls in the net or displaying an intensity few on the pitch can match. While the Timbers feature 15-goal-scorer Diego Valeri from Argentina in their midfield, it’s usually Dempsey who determines which way any particular Cascadia derby will swing.

“They’re important games,” Dempsey said. “They’re games that mean a lot to the city … you want to represent yourself well and show your passion for the club and try to get the win for your team.”

The Sounders, at 11-7-8, entered the weekend in top spot in the conference with 41 points. Portland sat tied for second place with 40 points and a record of 11-9-7, having played one additional game.

Seattle has a win and a draw in the series this year, with a 9-5-5 regular-season mark all time and a 7-0-2 record at home.

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said his squad’s veteran players have done a good job indoctrinating newcomers into what the Portland rivalry means. This time around, with first place up for grabs, nobody will need much convincing.

“I know they all say they that they don’t look at the standings,” Schmetzer said. “And we as coaches all say that we don’t look at the standings. But we all look at the standings. We know what it’s about. It’s Cascadia Cup. It’s Portland. It’s first place. Everybody is aware of it.”