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Top two teams in MLS Western Conference tangle Thursday at CenturyLink Field as season hits home stretch

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese (left) and Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, pictured before an August match, will square off again Thursday with first place on the line.Timbers-Sounders. First place on the line.

Oct. 22 promises to be another intriguing chapter in Major League Soccer's most storied rivalry.

With this abbreviated season officially in the home stretch — Portland has five games remaining, Seattle six — the Sounders and Timbers share the points lead in the Western Conference with 31.

A win for either team in Thursday's nationally-televised battle (7:30 p.m., FS1) could be decisive in deciding the top spot in the conference.

The good news for the Timbers? They have won three consecutive regular-season matches at Seattle, including a 2-1 victory on Sept. 6 in the match that ended Sebastian Blanco's season.

Portland would have entered this showdown alone in first place had Los Angeles FC 16-year-old Christian Torres not scored three minutes into stoppage time on Sunday.

It was a tough turn of events, but another example of the thin line between success and failure in MLS. The Timbers had a lineup that might be its best 11 playing against a makeshift LAFC squad down eight key players, but couldn't finish off the visitors.

Despite the disappointing result, coach Giovanni Savarese praised his team's effort. Savarese complained that debatable first-half yellow cards to Diego Chara and Eryk Willamson from referee Allen Chapman handcuffed his side.

"That influenced the match, for sure," Savarese said. "It made our game more difficult because our midfielders had to be extra cautious to make sure that they didn't arrive at a tackle at the wrong time. If they were one second late, they couldn't go for the ball. You have a yellow card from the start of the match, especially two defensive mids, you start under difficult conditions."

How difficult Portland has it at Seattle might depend upon the health of Jeremy Ebobisse. Ebobisse scored his team-leading eighth goal on Sunday but limped off the field late.

Ebobisse's status for Thursday's match was uncertain as of Tuesday, when Savarese said he was being checked for concussion symptoms after a couple of collisions against LAFC. Savarese did not mention Ebobisse's left leg, which appeared to be the reason he had to leave the game late in the second half.

With Blanco out of the picture, Ebobisse has become a vital and dependable player for Savarese — both for his ability to score and for his willingness to do the defending part of his job on the wing.

One way Savarese's team might make life easier on itself is to fall down when fouled. Ebobisse played through a foul inside the penalty area early in the Oct. 14 loss at Real Salt Lake and Felipe Mora did the same on Sunday against LAFC.

Given that attackers too often go down easily in the penalty area, Ebobisse and Mora should be commended for trying to finish their opportunities. But when officials don't call such fouls, they invite the flopping that make PK decisions that much more challenging for referees.

"Our honesty in the game, trying to make sure that we don't go down as easily, is maybe penalizing us," Savarese said.

In the two above cases, he is right. But in the big picture, attackers are paid to score goals and better served going for goal rather than going to ground.

T2 takes a break — Portland Timbers 2 has withdrawn from the USL Championship and will not play in 2021. The Philadelphia Union and Orlando City also announced that their developmental teams will withdraw from the USL. The plan is for T2 to return in 2022 — and to play in Hillsboro Stadium in a league/format to be determined.

The T2 decision was not a result of Portland's 3-13 record this season. Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson said the club will work with MLS to develop a new competitive pathway for players in the 18-23 age range.

T2 played six seasons in the USL's top division, but it was never an ideal fit. Many USL Championship teams are built to attract thousands of fans and compete for championships.

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