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November 2, 2013 at 12:51 AM

Sounders FC vs. Portland Timbers, preview and prediction (first leg)

Portland Timbers LogoSounders (West No. 4) vs. Portland Timbers (West No. 1); conference semifinals, first leg
Saturday, Nov. 2, 7:23 p.m., CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
National TV: NBC Sports Network (John Strong, Brian Dunseth)
Radio coverage: KIRO 97.3-FM/SiriusXM FC (Ross Fletcher, Kasey Keller)
Spanish coverage: La Gran D 99.3 FM
Referee: Baldomero Toledo

KEY TIMBERS PLAYERS

M Diego Chara — The 27-year-old Colombian is often compared to Osvaldo Alonso due to the amount of ground he covers and his penchant for picking up fouls at a high rate. So how often does he foul? Well, his 74 committed were third most in the league and as many as the next two Timbers combined (Diego Valeri, 39, and Rodney Wallace, 35). He also has 24 yellow cards in 87 games. Like Alonso, his big matchup could be with the referee, particularly how much he’s allowed to get away with.

GK Donovan Ricketts — Boasts some of the best stats in the league for the position, with a 0.97 goals-against average (second), saving 73 percent of shots faced (second) and 14 shutouts (first). The Jamaican international also had a plethora of MLS Save of the Week wins and many other highlight-reel stops; Lamar Neagle can serve as a reference. Has size (6 foot 4), experience (36 years old) and quite a few accolades (two-time MLS All-Star, Goalkeeper of the Year and Best XI in 2010).

M Rodney Wallace — The Costa Rican was taken No. 6 overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft had six goals in his first 85 league games dating to early this season. He then scored seven goals in his next 25 games with the Timbers. A breakout year, to be sure. His two goals against the Sounders, including a late equalizer back in March, are most in Portland’s MLS history. Got one last goal for good measure in a 5-0 beating of Chivas USA in the regular season finale.

KEY MATCHUPS

Eddie Johnson vs. Futty Danso — Speaking of those who have done well in the rivalry, EJ has four goals against the Timbers all-time, two this year. He thrives when the emotions and stakes are high, and you know he’ll be up for this one. “I think the lord answered my prayers,” he told reporters once the matchup became official. Since I compared Sounders and Timbers earlier, Danso is like the Zach Scott equivalent, a no-nonsense center back who made the leap to MLS from the USL days.

Diego Valeri vs. Osvaldo Alonso — It’s probably a matchup I’ve highlighted all four times these two teams have met, but it’s a big one. Valeri got my vote for MLS Newcomer of the Year and for the MLS Best XI after collecting 13 assists (most in MLS) and 10 goals. Looks for him to start potential counterattacks from his attacking midfield position. Alonso could have help in the assignment this time, as Brad Evans and Adam Moffat in the diamond formation can help out defensively.

Sigi Schmid vs. Caleb Porter — The coaches. Of course. The spotlight shines brighter on the guys in charge on the big stage, not to mention since they have a two-game series to manage. Will the Timbers sit back, keep things close and look for the counter? Will the Sounders push for a late goal if things are even? These two teams have been about as even as possible during the regular-season matchup (1-1-1, four goals apiece), so any edge could be the difference.

PREDICTION

Time to address the elephant in the room: I have already made my predictions for the MLS playoffs, and I already picked the Timbers to advance.

Now would a Seattle win (both in the game and series) surprise me?

Not in the least. Not anymore, after two much improved performances the last two games.

That said, the Timbers put together a fine year. There is a reason they’re the No. 1 seed in a loaded Western Conference. They’ve proven tough to beat, five losses are by far the lowest in the league, and they’re coming in confident.

Sounders FC 1, Portland 1

POR — Darlington Nagbe (Diego Valeri) 56′
SEA — Lamar Neagle (Clint Dempsey) 74′

*     *     *

I know this might not be a popular pick, but how do you see it playing out?

| More in Preview and prediction

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