- From the looks of things, either Seattle or Portland will make the MLS playoffs, as it's not looking likely that there is room for both Cascadia rivals.
It’s one of the most publicized and well-hyped rivalries in Major League Soccer, but at the close of the 2016 season, Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers will be mostly about avoiding embarrassment.
Week 29 in MLS should be remembered as the week where the real playoff contenders emerged, leaving others in their wake farther down the table. The league is notoriously volatile, and a handful of wins can dramatically change a team’s fortunes in a short amount of time. However, with just a small handful of games left, the time for those big swings is over. We finally know exactly what we have with all 20 teams, and in Seattle and Portland we have two good teams with just enough flaws to make their parallel competition engrossing viewing throughout the final month of the regular season.
As it stands today, Portland is holding on to the final playoff spot in the West with 41 points. Seattle is three points behind. So what makes this competition so intriguing (besides the whole “oldest/most intense rivalry in American club soccer” thing)? Games in hand.
Sounders crucially have two games in hand on their Northwest rivals. They’ll make up one of those games this Wednesday in a home tilt against league doormat Chicago. Then over the weekend it will travel a short distance to play fellow Cascadia rival Vancouver, a team that is all but eliminated from the playoff race thanks to owning one of the league’s leakiest defenses.
Meanwhile, the Timbers will take their winless away record on the road to play Colorado, which is chasing the Supporters’ Shield and hasn’t lost at home this season. The Timbers then finish out the season with another match vs. Colorado (this time at home), and an away tilt against Vancouver. It's not exactly the best recipe for Caleb Porter’s side if it hopes to hold off anyone, much less its hated rival that would love nothing more than to eliminate the defending MLS Cup champs from playoff contention.
And should the Timbers miss the playoffs, a bit of ignonimous history awaits them. Columbus, the team the Timbers defeated in MLS Cup 2015, face long odds to make the postseason after a disappointing season. If both Columbus and Portland fail to make the playoffs, it’ll be the first time in league history that both MLS Cup finalists will fail to make the postseason the following year.
Given common sense, it would seem fairly likely that the Sounders will close the gap on the Timbers by the end of this week, still with a game in hand. But remember, common sense rarely prevails in MLS. Portland could just as easily rout Colorado this week, Seattle could lose both of its upcoming games, Columbus could win out and get help, and MLS Cup 2016 could be a Columbus-Portland rematch.
To quote a just-retired NBA great: Anything is possible.
Offensive player of the week: Mauro Manotas, Houston Dynamo
Part of the reason the Timbers find themselves in their current predicament is a superb performance over the weekend from Manotas, who netted a hat trick in the Dynamo’s 3-1 win. Quick and skillful, the 21-year-old has shown plenty of promise in limited outings on the Houston frontline, but hasn’t had the tangible results until very recently. After scoring his first MLS goal last week, Manotas was all confidence on Saturday, calmly dispatching a penalty kick, opportunistically attacking a low service into the box, then finishing calmly on a breakaway.
Defensive player of the week: Justin Morrow, Toronto FC
Justin Morrow is quietly enjoying another solid season with Toronto FC, and his goal-scoring performance in a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia was just the latest example. Morrow was his usual industrious self on the left side of defense, constantly breaking up attacks and probing the Union backline with crosses and forward-thinking service. That he scored his career-best fourth goal of the year was the (very important) icing on the cake.