The best team in Major League Soccer since the start of the 2009 season is the Galaxy. No. 2 is Seattle. They're consistently the best teams on the field -- they finished 1-2 in the Supporters' Shield standings last year -- and the organization set the standards off the field, too.
There's been one huge showdown -- to open the 2010 playoffs, a two-game Galaxy sweep -- and one the towering presence of Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid, who is soccer royalty in these parts after winning championships at UCLA and with the Galaxy. He's the only man with more MLS regular-season wins (161) than L.A. boss Bruce Arena (131).
Best talent in MLS: Galaxy, right? Except Seattle might have more.
It's a great and growing rivalry, or so the Sounders and their fans would have you believe, and close to 40,000 will be on hand to lend the appropriate atmosphere for Wednesday night's showdown at CenturyLink Field.
“It's a big game for us,” Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning told his team's website this week. “Especially because L.A. is the champion. Wednesday is a big test for us. Everybody is 100 percent motivated -- maybe even a bit more.”
The Galaxy (3-3-1) understand the importance, too -- big crowd, great opponent, possible six-point swing in the Western Conference's numbers count -- but do they consider the Sounders (4-1-1) to be a rival?
“I think we've developed a lot of rivalries in this league,” said midfielder Mike Magee. “I wouldn't say it's one of the bigger ones -- not to the level of us and Chivas [USA] -- but we've definitely had some heated matches. Felt at times they've had some choice words for our team. That's a hard place to play. When we go there, they definitely step up their level.”
Chivas is the big rival, taking over from the San Jose Earthquakes once it started competing for real in its second season, in 2006, but there are other games that elicit stronger feelings, owing if not to geography, then to a shared past. Or something else.
“I think every game we play in the league is a rivalry game ...,” Arena said. “What are you going to ask me on Thursday: 'Is [weekend opponent] New York a rival?' ”
Well, the Red Bulls are, sort of -- two biggest markets, all the Designated Players on both rosters, David Beckham and Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez's venom for Landon Donovan. It's a newer one, perhaps, falling into line after the Clasico with hated Chivas, the California Clasico with the Quakes (dismissingly called “Smurfs” by L.A. faithful) and perhaps stepping in front of the old rivalry with D.C. United, forged through two title-game meetings in MLS's the first four seasons.
“I don't buy into any of it,” Arena said. “I do think Chivas -- a team in the same facility, in the same community ... to me, we'd have a hard time arguing whether that's [not] a rivalry. All the others? They're all to different degrees rivalries. I think every club in the league, it's a rival.”
I posed the question on Facebook, directing it toward Galaxy fans, and the most penetrating response came from an old friend, Richard Nicholls, a Seattleite who rooted for the Galaxy before the Sounders joined MLS. He's a Sounders season ticket-holder.
“It's a pretty one-sided rivalry,” he wrote. “The Sounders consider the Galaxy their greatest rival, still more than [archrival Portland] Timbers, but I doubt the Galaxy will feel the same until the Sounders learn to beat them.”
L.A. is 5-1-2 in MLS regular-season and playoff games and has never lost at CenturyLink. The record is 5-0-1 in such matches the past two seasons.
In all regular-season games since 2009 kicked off, L.A. is 52-21-28 and Seattle is 48-25-27. In playoff games, the Galaxy are 8-1-2. The Sounders are 1-4-1.
The Sounders are the big club in the Cascadia rivalry with Portland and Vancouver. The Galaxy are the big club in whatever rivalry exists with Seattle. The “little” clubs want to make statements.
“The Timbers want to prove themselves to their 'daddies' to the north,” Nicholls wrote, “and the Sounders want to beat their 'daddies' way down south.”
Galaxy forward Pat Noonan, who scored the stoppage-time equalizer against FC Dallas last weekend, played for Seattle the past two seasons.
“You know what?” he said. “I don't know if I'd call it a rivalry yet ... but you know there's a little something extra, because you have two very good coaches, experienced coaches, and Seattle has had early success [in its existence] and L.A. has a history of success. ... Each year we were up for these games against L.A., we knew they were important, and L.A. had the better of us at the time. It's definitely a game you get up for.”
WORTH NOTING: Neither Beckham nor Robbie Keane traveled to Seattle as Arena prepares to rotate his lineup ahead of Saturday's home game. ... Josh Saunders, who left the team late last week to address an undisclosed personal matter, also did not travel, so Bill Gaudette likely will make another start in the nets. ... The Galaxy lead the all-time series, 5-3-2, with two of the losses in U.S. Open Cup games in Tukwila, south of Seattle. ... The Galaxy's third kit this season will be chosen from designs submitted by fans on the club's Facebook page.
UPDATE (11:45 p.m.): Saunders will be out an undetermined amount of time after enrolling in MLS's substance-abuse treatment program, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Head coach: Sigi Schmid
Key players: F Fredy Montero, M Mauro Rosales, F David Estrada, M Osvaldo Alonso, D Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, F Eddie Johnson, M Steve Zakuani.
Local guys: Estrada (UCLA), F Sammy Ochoa (Riverside), M Brad Evans (UC Irvine), D Patrick Ianni (UCLA), D/M Andy Rose (UCLA), D Michael Tetteh (UC Santa Barbara).
Update: The Sounders have won every game in which they've scored, and as they've gotten healthy -- Rosales and defender Adam Johansson returned last week after missing four games -- and former U.S. national-teamer Johnson has acclimated after his own injury battle, they've started flexing again. When star forward Montero, who hasn't scored yet (after wrapping up postseason with back-to-back two-goal games), finds his stride (and if Zakuani can return somewhere close to form from that devastating leg injury), the Sounders might be the best team in MLS. Certainly, they're in the conversation. Johnson netted his first goal for the club in last week's 2-1 win at Chicago, and only a late Marco Pappa strike ended a bid for three straight shutouts. Seattle has conceded just three goals over 540 minutes this season.
Out: D Omar Gonzalez (left ACL tear), D Leonardo (right ACL/LCL tears).
Questionable: G Brian Perk (sports hernia surgery).
Out: G Josh Ford (right knee stress fracture), G Andrew Weber (left ankle sprain); D Michael Tetteh (left hamstring strain), M Steve Zakuani (right leg fracture), F Babayele Sodade (right knee ACL tear).
Doubtful: M Alvaro Fernandez (right quad strain).
Questionable: D Patrick Ianni (lower back pain).
Probable: M Mauro Rosales (right knee sprain).
CenturyLink Field (Seattle), 7 p.m.
Referee: Hilario Grajeda
TV: KDOC (Channel 56, English) and KWHY (Channel 22, Spanish, 8 p.m.)
Radio: ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)