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Rivalry games on tap for Timbers and Thorns; Savarese's take on world stars joining MLS; Steve Clark's Portland visit.

A weekend that fans of Portland's professional soccer teams look forward to is upon us as the Timbers and Thorns head to Seattle to challenge rivals.

On July 9, the Timbers visit Lumen Field, where they have recently found season-impacting results. Their first battle with Seattle in 2022 is slated for 1:30 p.m. July 9 and to be nationally televised by FOX.

ON SOCCEROne day later, the Thorns and OL Reign renew their rivalry with a 3 p.m. tilt at Lumen Field (streamed on Twitch).

The Thorns were rolling before the current international break. Now comes a chance for understudies and perhaps replacement players to prove themselves.

Those storylines can be intriguing, but, unfortunately, what should be one of the National Women's Soccer League's marquee matches will be played while the eyeballs following women's soccer are focused on the Concacaf W Championship. That tournament, taking place in Mexico, runs through July 18 and will qualify four teams for the 2023 Women's World Cup and two for the 2024 Olympics. Thorns at that tournament are Becky Sauerbrunn and Sophia Smith (United States), Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie (Canada) and Rocky Rodriguez (Costa Rica).

At the same time, Natalia Kuikka is with Finland for the European Championships.

In contrast to the Thorns, the Timbers' roster was in its best shape of the season as of the end of June. With a favorable July schedule, the Timbers just might be positioned to make another of their annual mid-to late-season climbs to relevance.

After the match in Seattle, Portland will play four of its next five MLS matches at home, a stretch that could determine the ultimate destination of the club in 2022.

The Timbers recently earned vital home wins over Colorado and Houston five days apart, the first consecutive wins by the team this year. Against the Rapids, Portland played some of its best soccer of the season in the second half of a 3-0 win. The win over the Dynamo was a matter of hanging on with some desperate defending on a night when Houston had a significant edge in shots attempted, and Portland played the final 20 minutes down a man.

Through the struggles of the first half of this season, Giovanni Savarese kept wondering when things might break better for his side. That happened in those two late-June home wins, with the first goal in each coming from the penalty spot — and his side being the more clinical finishers around the goal.

If that trend continues over the upcoming games at Providence Park, Portland can take momentum into the final third of its schedule. But, should the Timbers fail to get multiple wins in the friendly July schedule, the climb to a sixth consecutive playoff berth will get steep.

• Big-name additions such as Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini at LAFC and Lorenzo Insigne at Toronto FC create understandable buzz. For MLS in significant markets and raise expectations around those teams.

But are they really good for a league that sells competitive balance as one thing that separates it from the world's more established leagues?

Savarese's take: "You want players that have played at the highest level to participate in MLS, players that are coming here to contribute, to make the league more competitive. And, from the standpoint of someone that has been here from day one in MLS, I want this league to continue to move forward, to grow, to be even stronger, more respected worldwide. And I believe that the more players that can come in and realize how difficult the league is, the more information will get to other places and (others will) respect this league even more. For us, we'll look at it that it's positive, and we're looking forward to those matchups against teams that are bringing those types of players. In this particular moment, I think it's healthy."

Steve Clark, the former Timbers goalkeeper now with Houston, said the story of the growth of MLS is more about player development than the arrival of superstars.

"I don't necessarily think that the league is about the players that are big names coming in. It's about the players now who are in the league and the younger players coming up, becoming a league that displays their own talent."

Clark moved to the Dynamo as a free agent after the Timbers run to the brink of a championship last fall. He is embracing being a culture builder for a Dynamo organization, trying to develop championship expectations.

He enjoyed returning to Portland as an opposing keeper despite losing on June 29 to his former team. He spent a few days in town connecting with friends.

Clark said playing again at Providence Park produced "a lot of great memories. Great games, performances, great wins. Just all love for the Timbers, for the fans, for the city."

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