SEATTLE – Stefan Frei chuckled at the questions aimed at him following training on Friday.
For the Sounders goalkeeper, there’s simply a home match on Sunday that his team needs to win. For the media in front of him, the matchup with Portland at CenturyLink Field is franchise-defining.
“You guys are really trying to make this a really big game,” Frei said. “The reason why it’s the biggest game is because if we win, we would win the Cascadia Cup. That’s where we should be focused on – we can win a trophy. Yes, it’s a trophy for the fans, but ultimately you’re here to win things. It’s an opportunity to do that.”
The Sounders sit ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers in the standings for the Cascadia Cup, a title formally etched in a trophy in 2004. But the sizing up of Portland and Seattle against each other in soccer reaches back to the 1970s.
In typical Pacific Northwest manner, players aren’t prodding each other by calling themselves Ferraris among Fiats like LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimović did in the lead-up to Friday’s El Trafico rivalry matchup against LAFC forward Carlos Vela. Ibrahimović backing up his claim with a hat trick in the win, however, is in line with how Seattle wants to flex on its rival.
After all, it’s the Los Angeles teams and their current 1-2 standing in the Western Conference that the Sounders (10-5-5) want to usurp for home-field advantage in the postseason. The Galaxy’s win Friday slipped them into second with 37 points compared to the Sounders’ 35.
Meanwhile, Portland (7-8-4) is four points outside the playoff race. Yet it’s the club that’s defeated Seattle in too many key matchups of late. The Timbers knocked the Sounders out of the postseason last year and in June rolled out their best lineup to defeat Seattle in a U.S. Open Cup match at Cheney Stadium. The Sounders were without 10 players due to international duties.
“MLS teams change so much from year to year,” said Frei, who wasn’t in goal for the June match. “They’re a different side, we’re a different side. They’ve evolved so much throughout this year and so have we. To focus too much on that (playoff) game, you’d be living in the past and hurting yourself more than anything. We’re trying to focus on what is going on right now … and hope that what we can bring to the table on the weekend is going to be better than what they’re bringing.”
One thing Seattle will be bringing is a full roster that’s had time to train together. Left winger Victor Rodriguez (hamstring) is out, but backup Harry Shipp has been a seamless replacement.
Shipp had the winning goal for the Sounders last week against Atlanta, the defending MLS champions. The score helped push Seattle’s home unbeaten streak to 13 matches.
Portland settled for a 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC in its last outing Thursday at Providence Park. The Timbers feature a transition game that highlights the attack of its front line in forwards Brian Fernandez and Jeremy Ebobisse and midfielders Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.
“You have to be clean with the ball,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of defending the Timbers. “Our objectives for the game is obviously to keep possession in our opponent’s half. We try to do that in every game. Against Portland, you have to be extra careful. If you’re sloppy with one touch, a bad pass, a bad decision, all of a sudden, they’re out on a break.
“As we possess the ball, we need to know where Valeri is, Blanco, where their key guys that start the break are and then make sure that some of the highlights you watch … make sure we make them pay.”
Schmetzer said getting the opening goal will help in dictating the game. But the undeniable emotions and significance of the match is a factor you can’t really prepare for – except to not make the moment bigger than necessary.
“It’s a good challenge for a defender, that’s why I love this type of game because we’ll face some powerful attacking,” said Sounders assistant Djimi Traore, who’s charged with coaching the defenders. “For us, the main thing is to win trophies. So far, we’ve won more trophies than Portland and we’re looking forward (to another).”
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