There are a lot of dueling narratives coming to a head as the Seattle Sounders prepare for an unprecedented two-game, end-of-season, top-of-the-table clash with the LA Galaxy. There's Sigi Schmid vs. Bruce Arena, the two head coaches who have been one another's nemesis dating back to their college days. There's Robbie Keane vs. Obafemi Martins, the cultured strikers enjoying MVP-caliber seasons. There's Landon Donovan vs. Clint Dempsey, the former and current United States national team poster boys.
But the one that might be most relevant to Sounders fans is this: the Galaxy are enjoying one of their trademark late-season runs, while Seattle seems to perpetually come up short around this time of year.
It's not entirely fair, of course, as aside from last year the Sounders have played reasonably well down the stretch -- the playoffs are, of course, a different matter -- and the Galaxy actually compiled a perfectly middling 3-3-3 over their final three games from 2011-13 (which happens to be the same record Seattle has posted over the same time). The power of the narrative is strong, at least when it comes to shaping public perception, and it's not entirely surprising that many, so it's note entirely surprising that many are pegging the Galaxy as favorites and not just because of their superior goal-difference this season.
These two games, though, present the Sounders with a very real opportunity to change this perception, possibly forever.
There are reasons to think this team is up for it, as well.
Martins and Dempsey
As recently as 2012, the Sounders were often citing the Galaxy having players like Donovan, Keane and David Beckham as a major difference. They were all experienced veterans who were accustomed to high-pressure situations. That was a major reason the Sounders opened their wallets last year to sign first Obafemi Martins and then Clint Dempsey. It's true that last year did not end as planned, but those two stars were mere shells of themselves, both hobbled by injury and adjusting to a new league.
This year, they've undergone one serious test in the U.S. Open Cup final and passed with flying colors. Dempsey played all 120 minutes and scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal, a gorgeous left-footed finish in overtime. Martins was a second-half sub, but still managed to log 60 minutes and score a goal of his own.
It was exactly what they were brought here to do, and now they must do it again.
No forward tandem has been more electric on a more regular basis than Dempsey and Martins, as they've set each other up for eight goals. They've made a habit of playing mini games of whatever-you-can-do-I-can-better, while still deferring when appropriate. Their little combinations and one-twos have become the staple of the Sounders' diet with both turning into willing runners for the other, trusting that if there's any way to thread a pass it will be found.
When the Sounders needed a goal in years past, it was almost always with the very distinct hope that it would be one or two players who could provide that magic. And while it remains true that the Sounders have sometimes been too reliant upon Dempsey and Martins doing their thing, this year's team has far more weapons than past iterations.
Lamar Neagle has really come into his own, especially recently. He has a combined 17 goals and assists, which is by far a career high and he's proven himself a dangerous player from wide positions. Marco Pappa continues to show skill well beyond his numbers but those four goals and five assists aren't anything to sneeze at either. In fact, the Sounders have eight players who have scored at least three goals and nine with at least three assists. No other team can boast such numbers.
One of the most glaring issues last year's team faced was an inability to get road results, as they lost 10 of 17 away from CenturyLink Field and scoring just 13 goals in the process. In stark contrast, this year's Sounders have been the best road team in the league.
Not only have the Sounders claimed more road points (26) than anyone else, but they're tied for the most wins (eight) and their 32 road goals are seven more than anyone else. Granted, their 32 road goals allowed is among the worst marks in the league, but it's also indicative of a team that at least attempts to play the same no matter where they are. That kind of mentality is just what they'll need in Sunday's game.
There's no getting around that the Sounders defense has shown a penchant for leakiness. But they at least have the rock they've been hoping to build around in Chad Marshall.
Marshall has been an absolute beast in central defense, and is easily the biggest reason the Sounders have allowed just one goal from crosses and just three others from all non-penalty set pieces this year. When games get tighter late in the season and in the playoffs, those are often the kinds of goals that can kill you and the Sounders have done a solid job of avoiding that fate.
Just how good has Marshall been? The Opta-powered stats website Squawka has a metric called "performance score" that compiles a bunch of measurements into one all-inclusive stat. The top of the list is occupied by players who will be contending for MVP honors. But right there at No. 5 is Marshall. In fact, he's the only defender in the Top 10 and one of just two in the Top 20 (Matt Hedges is No. 12).
Obviously none of these things mean the Sounders will hold off the Galaxy to win the first Supporters' Shield in franchise history. But taken together, there's ample reason to think it's at least possible.