By TIM BOOTH
AP Sports Writer
TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) – Aside from his head coach, Brad Evans is about the only one who has been there for all the moments, games and events that have helped define the Seattle Sounders and the wild success of the franchise.
Sunday night will be another one of those memorable events for the Sounders when the second-largest crowd for an MLS regular-season game – about 67,000 fans – is expected to see the home side face rival Portland in Clint Dempsey's first home match with Seattle.
The Sounders have played twice with Dempsey, both on the road in Toronto and Houston. It's just luck of the schedule that his home debut comes against Seattle's most heated rival with CenturyLink Field having been sold out for a couple of weeks.
"It's great things are moving in that direction," Dempsey said about the attention on Sunday's match. "The game is growing here, as you can see – more franchises popping up, more soccer-specific stadiums. It's awesome to be a part of, helping continue the growth of the game here. The most important thing is to make sure we're successful here in Seattle and we get the job done."
While bragging rights and positioning in the Cascadia Cup rivalry between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver will always be at stake anytime the three sides are facing off, Sunday's match brings a new aspect that hasn't been there the last two seasons: a legitimate fight for playoff positioning with two months left in the regular season.
Portland enters the match unbeaten in its last three and in second place in the Western Conference but smarting from a missed opportunity to move on top of the conference standings. The Timbers held a late 3-2 lead against 10-man Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night, but gave up a stoppage time goal for a 3-3 draw, the Timbers' 12th tie this season.
"We definitely want to play this game against Seattle as quickly as possible," Portland's Ryan Johnson said following the 3-3 draw. "We're all looking forward to going. It's going to be a great game with all of those fans. Should be exciting."
Meanwhile the Sounders are still playing catch up. Entering the weekend they are two points behind Vancouver for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but have played the fewest league matches of any team in MLS. Having additional games to make up ground is an advantage for the Sounders. The disadvantage they have is the upcoming games in September and October when Dempsey, Evans and Eddie Johnson will likely be gone for World Cup qualifying.
Seattle is welcoming Portland's success, just as long as the Timbers don't get in the way of the Sounders' own playoff aspirations. The competitiveness is good for the rivalry, beyond just geographical proximity of the two franchises.
"For me there are always the marquee games. The first game of the inaugural season; Kasey Keller's farewell game was a big game; and anytime we meet these guys it's a big game," Evans said. "You add a little bit of something extra when it's Clint's first game at home, selling out what we think is the whole stadium, but also there has never been this sort of battle for positional rankings right now and the standings haven't been as close as they are right now."
Seattle also feels like it gave away two points earlier this season to Portland that could prove important down the line. The Sounders were moments away from a 1-0 victory against the Timbers in their second game of the season when Rodney Wallace scored on a header at the beginning of second half stoppage time for a 1-1 draw.
The sides also have a match in October in Portland, but Seattle coach Sigi Schmid hopes to see the Timbers, Sounders and Vancouver all playing in the postseason.
"Can you imagine what things would be like if us, Vancouver, and Portland all made the playoffs and ended up playing each other?" Schmid said. "That would be immense."
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.
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