Rivalry Week

Portland Timbers hold "no illusions" about opportunity vs. Seattle Sounders


It took precious little time for Phil Neville, now six months on the job as Portland Timbers head coach, to understand matches like this mean more to the Rose City faithful.

We’re talking, of course, about Sunday’s rivalry showdown with Seattle Sounders FC at Providence Park as part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (4:45 pm ET | Apple TV - Free; FOX, FOX Deportes).

“My second day at the club, I met the supporters in a warehouse just to have a Q&A with them,” Neville told MLSsoccer.com this week. “And I've got to say, 90 percent of the questions were about the Cascadia Cup, the Seattle game in particular. They left me under no illusions about the importance, what it means to them.

“Any derby game, I feel, is a game where it's bigger than probably the three points because you're playing for bragging rights, you're playing for your supporters to have that feeling that they've beat their biggest rivals. And that's our motivation for Sunday, is to make sure our supporters have the bragging rights and that they leave that stadium proud of their team.”

Means more

This matchup, comprising two-thirds of the Cascadia Cup alongside Vancouver Whitecaps FC, is traditionally one of Major League Soccer’s most heated.

While steady expansion has introduced new rivalries throughout MLS, such as El Tráfico and Hell is Real, this one began in the 1970s when the Sounders and the Timbers competed in the long-since-shuttered North American Soccer League. Eras of North American soccer have come and gone, and both clubs eventually joined MLS – Seattle in 2009 and Portland in 2011 – to great success.

As they ruled the roost in the Western Conference, one or the other made MLS Cup every year from 2015-21, with Portland winning at the onset of that run and Seattle doing so in 2016 and 2019. Among other trophies, Seattle also made a historical breakthrough as 2022 Concacaf Champions League winners – earning a spot in next summer’s FIFA Club World Cup.

When these Pacific Northwest neighbors trade blows, legacy and passion are at stake.

“This rivalry is not new, just this generation now. It's your parents, it's your grandparents who have had this game as part of their history with this football club. It's ingrained in the history from both sides,” said Neville, an Englishman whose Everton and Manchester United playing days often meant Liverpool were in the rivalry crosshairs.

“This is probably one of the best rivalries in MLS in terms of the intensity of the games. Seattle have good success, we've had success, and I think when you talk about derby games, history is a massive thing about them. It's not just about somebody going to the game – it's the generation of families that have been at this game, that have passed down that rivalry to each other.”

Finding balance

Recent history suggests this weekend’s clash is Portland’s to lose; the Timbers are six games unbeaten (4W-0L-2D) against the Sounders. Neville feels that instills “confidence” at training, but ultimately means little – potentially a nod to their struggles as of late.

Portland soared early in Neville’s tenure, earning seven of nine possible points to start the season. But now they’re winless in eight games and share an identical 2W-5L-4D record with Seattle, narrowly below their rivals at 12th place in the Western Conference due to the goal differential tiebreaker.

Derby atmosphere and emotions aside, Sunday is a prime opportunity to right the ship.

“The first three games, two were at home, one was away. And then we've had seven out of the last nine away. So I think home advantage was key at the start of the season: Confidence, playing in front of our own supporters, building momentum. And we've not had that for the last seven of nine games,” Neville said.

“We want to get back to playing at home, getting the feel of our home comforts, not traveling as much. I think that will help us. And then winning some games of football, playing to our potential, concentrating for 90 minutes and getting some confidence back in the group. Because I think we're a team that's not played poorly apart from one game against Charlotte away. We're a team now that needs to get back to winning ways.”

For Portland, the attack is seldom a concern. Their 20 goals scored are third-most in MLS, with Designated Players Evander and Jonathan Rodríguez forming an increasingly promising partnership. Felipe Mora has roared back from injury, and Santi Moreno and Antony bring a creative spark.

Portland’s defense is another conversation, though. They’ve allowed the second-most goals (23) in MLS, despite signing two Canadian internationals – center back Kamal Miller and goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau – this past offseason. They still lean heavily on holding midfielder Diego Chara, now age 38, and haven't yet found a go-to backline.

It leaves Neville seeking the right tactical balance and personnel combination.

“We've shown certain qualities that are really massively important – a team that doesn't want to be beaten, a team that never gives in – in terms of the building phase,” Neville said. “Now we need to be a team that's ruthless enough to go on and win games of football. And we haven't seen that apart from a couple of occasions.”

Neville added: “We've been one of the most high-scoring teams in the league, so we're a really exciting team. We've got exciting players. But individuals don't win you games of football, individuals help you score goals. You need a collective, you need everyone working together. You need everyone to sacrifice themselves and that's what we're working really hard on.”

Time to deliver

Will that all come together on Sunday afternoon? Neville, trying to return Portland to their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs since 2021, understands the magnitude of what awaits.

“The atmosphere is our 12th player on the pitch, without a shadow of a doubt,” Neville said. “And we need to make sure we produce a performance that gets [our fans] excited. I think we owe them a performance.

“… We have the best fans, I truly believe that, in MLS. Sunday's going to be a special atmosphere.”