SEATTLE (AP) – In 11/2 seasons of Major League Soccer play, the Portland Timbers have some impressive moments: sweeping Cascadia rival Vancouver a year ago, beating Los Angeles last August when the Galaxy were riding a 14-game unbeaten streak and nearly making the MLS playoffs in their inaugural season.
They still haven't beaten their Interstate 5 rival just three hours to the north.
The most heated rivalry in U.S. soccer steps back into the spotlight on Sunday afternoon when the Timbers host the Seattle Sounders in the first of three meetings between the foes this season.
Last year, the Timbers pulled out a 1-1 draw in Seattle, but conceded a pair of second half goals in Portland for a 3-2 loss to the Sounders.
Both times the atmosphere surrounding the games matched the lofty expectations of what the Cascadia rivalry was going to bring to the league.
"Obviously, the first game was up there in Seattle, and me and (Seattle coach) Sigi (Schmid) met each other at the halfway line and shook hands right before the game, and I'll never forget what he said. He said, 'This is what big games are all about.' I couldn't agree more," Portland coach John Spencer said. "I thought the atmosphere was electrifying, then obviously them coming down to Portland was just the same. It was great, great intensity, the fans were out in full force and their voices were singing for 90 minutes."
Right now, Spencer and the Timbers would settle for any victory, whether it came against their rivals or another MLS side. The Timbers are just 3-6-4 overall, tied with Dallas for last in the Western Conference, and have just one victory since mid-April.
Included in Portland's recent struggles was a stunning loss in the U.S. Open Cup to lower-division Cal FC that ruined a potential fourth-round matchup between the Sounders and Timbers. During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Spencer became upset at the mention of the Cal FC loss and Seattle's subsequent victory over Cal FC in the fourth-round.
"I thought we were here to talk about Seattle," Spencer snapped.
Portland does have just one loss in its last four matches - a 1-0 setback to Los Angeles last Saturday - but has been far from its finest form. Same with Seattle, which saw its winless streak reach six games when the Sounders were only able to manage a 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night at home. The six straight league games without a victory match the longest dry spell in franchise history.
"We take it very, very seriously and obviously the last couple of games the results haven't gone our way so that makes it that much more important," Seattle defender Zach Scott said.
There is a chance Sunday's match might see the return of Seattle's Steve Zakuani, who has been out since breaking his right leg in April 2011. Zakuani was among Seattle's eligible reserves for Wednesday's draw with Kansas City, but Schmid felt the physicality of that game would not be the best spot for Zakuani's return.
But just watching a game from the bench rather than the press box was a major step forward for Zakuani.
"I just want to play. I've upped my training to a really good level now and the only way I'm going to get match fit and back to my former level is playing games," Zakuani said. "Of course, it would be nice for it to be at home in front of our fans and get that first comeback out of the way, but wherever it is I'll be happy to do it."
The first meeting in the 2012 edition of the rivalry will also have another subplot, with Mike Fucito becoming the first player to play for both sides in the MLS era of the two franchises. Fucito was traded from Seattle to Montreal as part of the deal that brought Eddie Johnson to Seattle, and then was dealt from the Impact to the Timbers in April.
"He's on the other side now, so all of the sudden they're the good side," Schmid said. "It all depends which side of the fence you're standing on."