As good as being the First to Four (Cascadia Cup championships) sounds, doesn't First to Five sound even better? After a handful of matches this season the Seattle Sounders are currently first in the competition with two points and lead the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps by a single point.
Cascadia Cup matches are, maybe not a rarity, but are infrequent enough that every match is crucial to determining the winner of the competition and are also eagerly awaited by fans throughout the region.
Ahead of this weekend's big tilt between the Timbers and Whitecaps we visit with Michael Orr from Stumptown Footy to discuss the Timbers and the upcoming derby match against the Caps.
Eighty Six Forever (86F): The Timbers got off to a "slow" start in 2014 with a record of W0-L3-D5 in their first eight games and are currently undefeated in their last six matches. Why did it take Portland so long to win a match, and now that they have several wins under their belt can they keep it going?
Stumptown Footy (STF): The main issue in the early part of the season was scoring. Leaving aside the completely strange 4-4 draw with Seattle Sounders, it took until May before the Timbers scored more than once in any game. Since then they've done it four times, including in each of the past three games. Bad defensive mistakes have continued but with goalscoring up, some of those are covered up in a way that wasn't happening early on. Additionally, Steve Zakuani and Diego Valeri entered the season without being fully fit. They've finally caught up and have been quite effective in recent games. As far as keeping it going, that's hard to say with only three wins all year. But if the scoring continues, Portland will at the very least require a strong offensive output from opponents.
86F: You mentioned that Maximiliano Urruti (5 goals) and Fanendo Adi (2 goals) have had several strong performances recently. Can they maintain this form and how can their teammates support them?
(STF): Adi is unlikely to play against Vancouver in anything other than a short substitute's role as Caleb Porter rested most of the team's regular starters for the Chivas USA game on Wednesday night. That meant Adi played 90 minutes and Urruti didn't play at all. With Urruti back in the XI as the lone forward, he'll be supported by his usual starting partners, Zakuani, Valeri and Darlington Nagbe. There's certainly no guarantee that Urruti will score another brace, as he did in his last appearance, but he has capitalized on incisive passing and the return to form of Valeri and Zakuani. Nagbe has yet to score this year, after scoring nine times in 2013, so at some point he'll get on the board as well.
86F: The Timbers had quite a good 2013 season despite being knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Finals by Real Salt Lake (agg. 5-2). What are the expectations for the Timbers for the rest of 2014? Can the Timbers repeat and build on their 2013 post season experience?
STF: If, and it's a big if, the recent improvement in play is any indication, then the Timbers should be competitive for a playoff position. They may have already lost too many points to seriously challenge for a top spot in the Western Conference but a result on Sunday evening would be a big step back toward legitimacy. They've lucked out in one sense, in that the short week of travel to New York and Los Angeles came against two struggling teams in New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA. Vancouver is a better team than either right now so this should be a nice test. Should Portland pass, they'd consider themselves legitimately back in the hunt. The talent level is there, it's just a matter of maintaining the current rate of scoring and shoring up what has been a disastrous center back situation so far.
~ REVERSE ~
Stumptown Footy (STF): The Whitecaps are unbeaten in the league since April 12 and only have two losses on the season. Give us a starting point for the nice first third of the year, with the Voyageur's Cup results notwithstanding.
Eighty Six Forever (86F): The signs have been there since the Whitecaps demolished the New York Red Bulls 4 - 1 at BC Place on opening day. The Caps then had a pretty tough month of April which saw them play some difficult Western Conference rivals including the Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. Even though the Whitecaps managed two points against the Galaxy and RSL I think they realized that they are now they are in a much better position to compete against clubs that they have historically struggled against. Sebastián Fernández's last-minute strike away against Real Salt Lake to earn a draw was huge for their confidence, and they are W2-L0-D1 since that match. Controversial penalty aside, Vancouver really should have taken all three points from last weekend's match against the Sounders, but could not find the back of the net in the opening fifteen minutes when they totally dominated Seattle and came close to scoring several times.
STF: Erik Hurtado is local for us in Portland, having grown up in Beaverton, playing under Timbers legend John Bain as a youth player, and then with the Timbers U23s. Ignoring his hair for the moment, how has he transitioned from a complimentary player to a more important attacking option?
86F: Well, Whitecaps fans cannot ignore Erik's hair at the moment, because we honestly believe that's where E-Money is getting his mojo! All joking aside though, we know that Erik has been working extremely hard in training to improve, and we're all starting to see the results of all the hard work that he and the coaching staff have invested to improve his game. Erik is popular with the fans and we're really happy to see how he's developing because this is a completely different Erik Hurtado compared to the one we saw in his rookie season in 2013. With the departure of Futboldemort (a.k.a. Camilo) the Caps are scoring by committee this season, and although Erik only has two goals at the moment a couple more would put him in the lead for team scoring.
STF: Portland has finally gotten some nice performances from Maximiliano Urruti and Fanendo Adi in recent weeks. We all know about the improving front line for the Whitecaps but how will the defense be able to handle a Timbers attack that has hit its stride?
86F: The Whitecaps backline is anchored by the veteran CB's Andy O'Brien and Jay DeMerit with Jordan Harvey at LB and (usually) Steve Beitashour at RB. With Beitashour away with the Iranian Men's National Team and rookie Ethan Sampson recovering from injury Nigel Reo-Coker will start at RB. Reo-Coker provides excellent cover at the RB position having played there at various times in his career. The back four are playing behind Matías Laba and Gershon Koffie, who have paired up in midfield in recent weeks. They are a formidable duo and Laba has become one of the best players for the Whitecaps this season. Urruti and Adi will definitely give them a challenge, but hopefully Vancouver's defense has learned from the two matches against the LA Galaxy when, despite having played fairly well, momentary lapses resulted in conceding goals at crucial times in the game. In fact, my concern at the moment is at the other end of the pitch because, despite all the possession and creation of quality scoring chances, they are not making the most of all the quality build-up play and turning those chances into goals.
Ousted (GK) - Harvey - O'Brien - DeMerit - Reo-Coker - Koffie - Laba - Manneh - Morales - Fernández - Hurtado
Steven Beitashour RB (World Cup duty with Iran)
Darren Mattocks F (hamstring strain - probable)
Ethan Sampson RB (knee)
Note: special thanks to Michael Orr from Stumptown Footy for his time and insight. Cheers, Michael!
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