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 By Matt Pentz

Marshall says this year's Sounders 'more talented' than MLS Cup winners

Seattle Sounders' veteran center-back Chad Marshall believes this year's team is even better than the one that won MLS Cup last year, as evidenced by its 5-0 aggregate rout of Houston in the MLS Western Conference finals.

The 2016 Sounders dramatically climbed out of a 10-point midseason deficit to qualify for the postseason, then surged all the way to their first MLS Cup championship. For obvious, sentimental reasons, that group will forever hold exalted status within club lore.

But Marshall sees something different, and better, in the current team: "I feel like it's a more talented group, a deeper group," Marshall said inside CenturyLink Field's home locker room, the cooler in the middle packed with champagne and Budweiser. "Last year was great, obviously we went on an incredible run, but I feel as far as a talent standpoint, I feel like this team is even better."

That makes the rematch with Toronto FC at BMO Field next Saturday even more compelling. Plenty recall the theatrics of the penalty-kick shootout that decided last year's final, but the game itself was a snoozer, Seattle failing to squeeze out a single shot on goal over 120 minutes before triumphing on PKs.

In theory, at least, having both squads on closer footing should make for a more competitive match.

"I think it's similar," Marshall said. "Obviously, they're the favorites. I think they were the best team in the league over the course of the regular season. They're the home team for the final. They feel like they've gotten better. We feel like we've gotten better than last year. It's going to be a grind -- another cold grind."

Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer, meanwhile, said it was too early to dig too deeply into the tactics of next Saturday's showdown.

"I'm not going to compare the two teams quite yet," Schmetzer said. "But I'll tell you this: Both of the teams had the right mindset, the right mental strength to persevere in critical moments. Now, we can argue about Xs and Os and Nelson Valdez vs. Will Bruin or stuff like that.

"There will be some interesting conversations amongst the fans the pundits. How did Toronto change from last year? How did we change?

"I'm just really proud of that group of guys. The mindset of both groups is strong."

On the other side, there was only the lament of what could have been. Underdog Houston did itself no favors during the series, picking up red cards in each leg. Alberth Elis missed the second game via yellow-card accumulation, while fellow influential Honduran winger Romell Quioto picked up an untimely illness and was also sidelined.

"We had some difficulties, but no excuses," Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera said. "We have to have better discipline in terms of keeping all 11 players on the field. Not acceptable by Tomas [Martinez] to get a red card. It is difficult against Seattle with 11 players. It's even more complicated with 10."

Still, the first-year could take a measure of pride in a season that saw improvement from last place in the West all the way to the conference final.

"For us, we feel proud to have reached the Western Conference finals," Cabrera said. "I feel very proud, and very thankful for my players."

While Houston heads into the offseason, the Sounders will prepare for a match that could etch it onto an elite list. Only two MLS teams have ever gone back-to-back, 1996-97 D.C. United and the 2011-12 L.A. Galaxy, two of the very best squads in league history.

With another victory, would Seattle belong in such select company?

"You know me. I'm not one to talk about ourselves," Marshall said. "I'll leave that to [the media]. But it's a fun team to be around. This is all that I wanted when I came here [from Columbus], to play in big games. It's been a blast."

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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