Seattle Sounders', LA Galaxy's return to prominence revives once-fierce rivalry
Clint Dempsey and Lamar Neagle of the Seattle Sounders reminisced earlier this week about the climactic end to 2014, when they faced the LA Galaxy twice in a row to close the regular season and again in the MLS Western Conference final.
Seattle triumphed in October, lifting its first ever Supporters' Shield in front of its home fans, but Los Angeles got the last laugh, edging into the MLS Cup final it would ultimately win.
"Me and Clint were actually just talking about that game, when Juninho scored that goal to put it away," Neagle said, "and how devastating that was. We were talking about who was on our team back then, and how confident we were, how many goals we scored. We thought we could win the championship that year -- and then that happened."
Those two months proved to be the high point of an unorthodox rivalry between two conference powerhouses who clashed in the postseason four times in the first half of this decade. The rivalry never made much sense geographically; sure, both cities are on the West Coast, but they're roughly as close to one another as New York and Orlando.
Sounders-Galaxy was more about the personal enmity that had built up between two specific groups of players who through years of high-stakes showdowns grew to both dislike and grudgingly respect one another. As such, the deeper significance of the matchup, which arises again this Saturday at CenturyLink Field (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), has necessarily shifted.
When Dempsey and Neagle discussed who remains from that 2014 team, it was a short list. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and defender Chad Marshall join Dempsey and Neagle as the only ones left. The rest of the roster has turned over, and it's a similar story in LA.
One of the leading protagonists has actually switched sides. The most obvious storyline ahead of the weekend is the return to Seattle of Sigi Schmid, who was fired by the Sounders in the summer of 2016 and is now in charge of the Galaxy.
This isn't Schmid's first trip back at CenturyLink as an away coach -- that happened late last year -- but it is the first time he'll return in control of an actual fellow contender rather than an also-ran. LA enters the weekend in fourth place in the West and Seattle eighth, but just five points separate the combatants, and the latter has a pair of games in hand.
When Schmid and his longtime assistant Brian Schmetzer -- who later took Schmid's job -- get together the day before the game for their customary cup of coffee, one suspects that it will be slightly more guarded than usual.
This specific matchup feels like a throwback: the first time since Jordan Morris scored twice to topple Bruce Arena's Galaxy in September 2016 that these two teams have faced off at anything close to the peaks of their powers. (And even that felt a little like two ships passing each other en route to opposite destinations, with LA slumping and Seattle on the upward trajectory that would end in its inaugural MLS Cup.)
Even when considering the Galaxy's slight dip recently, these are two of the hottest teams in the league. Los Angeles has lost just once since May, and Seattle is unbeaten in eight and has won five straight.
The Galaxy and Sounders are rounding into form just as the season approaches its stretch run -- just like old times.
"The Galaxy used to have our number a little bit," Schmetzer said. "Those were some big games that we used to play. The dynamic between Bruce and Sig, there are a lot of similarities. I appreciate what Sig has done for me -- there will be that storyline, but the game will be the biggest one."
The result is so crucial to each team, in other words, that it will overshadow any other narrative, manufactured or otherwise. In that, too, this feels like how Sounders-Galaxy used to be.