Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy's MLS rivalry diluted amid a downturn
To Brad Evans, the long-standing feud between his Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy peaked in late 2014.
Over the span of six weeks from October through late November, Seattle and Los Angeles met four times, home and away, first to decide that year's Supporters' Shield and then to crown a Western Conference champion.
The Sounders triumphed first, winning the Shield on the final day of the regular season, but the Galaxy came out on top come playoff time. L.A. advanced via the most narrow of margins -- Juninho's second-half strike that skipped off the wet CenturyLink Field turf clinched the away-goals tiebreaker -- and Seattle was once again left wondering what might have been.
"That one felt like a real rivalry game," Evans told ESPN FC this past week. "Two teams that were just really, really good. That was a really big game, and that loss stung more than most of them."
That stretch of games encapsulated much of what has made this matchup so compelling over the years: Clashing personalities, high stakes, the Sounders lunging for L.A.'s status as the leading Western Conference club and coming up empty in the end.
It's worth asking, then, ahead of Saturday night's showdown at the StubHub Center (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN), what exactly Sounders-Galaxy means in the year 2017?
Los Angeles provided a straightforward-enough answer Thursday morning when it let go of coach Curt Onalfo and replaced him with longtime Seattle boss Sigi Schmid. On Saturday, at least, it'll be all about Schmid trying to put one over on a Sounders organization that fired him almost a year ago to the day.
In the beginning, this rivalry was all about Schmid and Bruce Arena, still the two most winning coaches in MLS history and two men who had butted heads ever since they were collegiate coaches at UCLA and Virginia, respectively.
"They brought their own dynamic," Evans said. "You knew that they were always holding things over the other's head. With the little nuances in the press before and afterward, there were always little jabs. The way that they did it was always funny in a way, but you also knew how much it meant to those guys."
Even if Arena is still gone, having taken the U.S. men's national team gig late last year, Schmid's return to the Galaxy -- where he coached from 1999 to 2004 -- will provide a fresh breath of life. Because otherwise, almost everything else of what made this series is gone or has at the very least evolved.
For one, neither side is the unquestioned MLS Cup frontrunner each has often been in years past. The Sounders have heated up lately, but they still sit fifth place in a Western Conference short on quality. Los Angeles has lurched all over the place under the jettisoned Onalfo, three points off the bottom of the conference thanks to a dismal 1-6-3 record at home.
Seattle is also the defending league champion. It finally bested L.A. in the knockout round of the 2015 postseason and surged all the way to an unlikely title last December. The narrative of Galaxy dominance has been flushed.
This is a series that has always been based more on clashing egos than geography. As tied together as the West Coast might seem culturally, New York is closer to Orlando both by mileage and drive time as Seattle is to Los Angeles.
Schmid was fired last July with the Sounders struggling through one of the most trying stretches of their MLS history. Arena, meanwhile, was called upon to take over the U.S. men's national team after Jurgen Klinsmann left this past winter. On the field, too, most of the early protagonists are long gone.
"When you think of rivalries, you think of certain characters and villains, and they definitely had the make-up," Evans said.
Former Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, Evans says, "had no regard for anybody's well-being on the field. Before and after the game, great guy, but during the game, he was the first one to poke and prod, commit fouls and get in your face."
Of Landon Donovan: "In his certain way, he's always jawing at the ref, and loud and boisterous. [David] Beckham, as well. You add [Robbie] Keane to that, and it was just a nightmare to deal with. They're bitching and complaining on the field all at once. That added to it. It spiced us up a little bit."
Now, though? Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme, as convincing an antihero as he can play with his menacing scowl, doesn't have the same history against the Sounders that his predecessors did. Seattle's Clint Dempsey saves most of his enmity for the Portland Timbers.
"I wouldn't really classify it as a rivalry right now," Evans said. "It's kind of similar to Salt Lake. When both teams were really good, yeah, it was two good teams going against each other. Maybe that's why it felt like a rivalry. But the proximity isn't close. Neither of us is sitting at the top of the standings. There's history there, but it's been eight, nine years. Maybe for Ozzie [Alonso] and I, it feels a little bit different, but for the better part of this team, it hasn't been as deep-rooted."
Sunday, then, represents something of a blank slate for the rivalry. Both teams are scrapping desperately for the playoffs and each, in its own way, grasping for a fresh, long-term identity in the absence of so many of those early standbys.
That might not sound like Sounders-Galaxy, but it represents an intriguing crossroads nonetheless -- especially with Schmid back on the sideline.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.