The veteran center back's influence is best told by the locker room's Chad Marshall Chronicles.
Sounders defender Chad Marshall is not comfortable in front of camera.
The veteran center back actively avoids the lens’ glare, sidestepping media-relations staffers with agility impressive for his size. Finally persuaded to take a few questions, Marshall often affixes reporters with a perturbed, blue-eyed stare.
Marshall isn’t bashful – his locker room antics described below are evidence enough of that. It’s more that he just doesn’t get what all the hubbub is about.
“I’m not like a talk-about-me kind of guy,” Seattle’s towering 6-foot-4 defender said this week. “It mostly stems from that. I’m just not super comfortable talking about myself.
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“I think it means more when other people talk about you.”
His Sounders teammates are more than happy to lend credence to his theory. There is something appropriate in that.
Marshall’s career accomplishments, after all, have been most keenly appreciated by his peers.
The 32-year-old has won a record three MLS Defender of the Year awards – which factors in a players’ vote — but often been left on the outside of the U.S. national team picture. Despite how central his influence has been to Seattle’s surge to the MLS Western Conference finals, few outside the locker room immediately tab Marshall as one of the team’s biggest stars.
To those that line up beside Marshall, however, there might not be a more beloved player on the roster. His teammates were less shy in dishing out the anecdotes that best describe what makes him such a dominant figure within the club.
Herculez Gomez’s favorite Chad Marshall story involves Stefan Frei’s clothes.
One fateful morning at Starfire Sports in Tukwila, the Sounders’ goalkeeper arrived before training in a floral print shirt. More specifically, per Marshall: Frei came into the locker room wearing a “weird, thin, flower shirt.”
While Frei was still in the shower after practice, in a moment of inspiration, Marshall decided to try on his teammate’s outfit. Thus began a weekly tradition, pulled off (or on) when Frei least suspects it and when a particular combination catches Marshall’s eye.
Frei and Marshall have similar builds but very different fashion choices. Frei, a native of Switzerland, favors slim, European-style cuts. When Marshall approaches an unsuspecting teammate — before they look up — to start what they believe to be an innocuous conversation, said slim cuts fit a bit differently on his bulkier frame.
“Their styles are very different,” Gomez said, giggling at the image in his head. “It’s pretty hilarious.”
Gomez’s least favorite Marshall story involves how often the defender has been overlooked as a potential national-team player.
Despite that trio of league Defender of the Year awards, Marshall has made just a smattering of USMNT appearances – 11, mostly clustered around the latter part of the last decade. For Gomez, who made the 2010 World Cup team that Marshall narrowly missed out on, that consistent omission is a “travesty.”
“If Chad would have played abroad anywhere else in the world, he would have been a national-team mainstay, because of that (MLS) stigma,” Gomez said. “When it’s all said and done, they’re going to name it the Chad Marshall Defender of the Year award. That’s how good he’s been in this league.
“There’s not one foreign player I’ve come across that hasn’t asked why Chad isn’t a mainstay with the national team. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Marshall, for his part, takes a different tact.
“I think when I look back at my career when I’m done, it’s definitely something I wish I had a bigger role in,” Marshall said. “That being said, I’m kind of over talking about the U.S. Soccer thing.”
To end this section with dose of levity more befitting its theme, Marshall’s personal favorite locker-room prank: “I used to, back in the Columbus days, be a fan of the Icy-Hot on the rim of the underwear,” Marshall said. “… I haven’t done that here. Maybe I throw that out for Tyrone (Mears) today.”
Marshall and Brad Evans go all the way back to an earlier reference point in their respective careers, to the 2007 Columbus Crew. Theirs was, at first, a friendship build on commiseration.
Evans injured his quad just a few games into his rookie season. Marshall, a few years in but still proving himself, was laid up with a series of concussions that would haunt portions of his career. They spent hours of undesired free time together working on the project home Marshall had purchased out in the Columbus suburbs.
“That was probably the best thing for us at the time, having each other,” Evans said. “Through tough times, that was huge.”
Evans was one of Marshall’s first calls when the latter was told after the 2013 season that he was no longer in Crew coach Gregg Berhalter’s plans. Evans relayed the message to the Sounders front office and, a few weeks later, Marshall was traded to Seattle.
Evans can’t pinpoint a single anecdote that encapsulates their lasting friendship, only a general state of undress.
“Chad is always naked. That’s it,” Evans said. “He never has clothes on. That’s what sticks out to me. It’s not even the pranks. It’s just the nakedness and dancing around naked. That’s Chad’s intangible: Naked.”
Pressed, Evans concedes that Marshall has some skills that translate more naturally onto the soccer field.
Marshall’s career arc has been remarkably steady, less about leaps and bounds from year to year than a flat line of standout play that never deviates. He’s on the shortlist of veteran, physical defenders – L.A.’s Jelle Van Damme, Montreal’s Laurent Ciman, defensive partner Roman Torres — that opposing attackers most dread lining up against.
“You get used to him performing, every single game, in the way that he does – lights out,” Evans said. “Winning every single header, intercepting balls. … He has experience. He has all the intangibles that make a good center back. He’s proven himself again this year, in my mind, as the best center back in the league.”
Evans also has a theory as to why Marshall has been overlooked by the U.S. Soccer powers that be.
“There’s an MLS hype machine,” Evans said. “They feel like they have to promote certain players at certain times.”
Rarely has that spotlight had much time for a steady, California-born center back on the fringe of the USMNT player pool. In its defense, the hype machine has gotten very little exposure to the intangible most often saved for the locker room: Chad Marshall in the flesh.
For Frei, the weight of Marshall’s presence is measured best by a succession of moments and inside jokes, rather than any particular flashpoint.
“They have to be PG I assume, right?” Frei said when asked about his favorite Marshall story. “You should have given me prep. He’s such a goofball that it all just blurs together.”
Frei and Marshall sit next to each other in the locker room and are regular video-game partners. They both arrived in Seattle prior to the 2014 season, and both have become relied-upon anchors of the defense that underpinned this late-season turnaround. They’re “pretty good buddies,” the goalkeeper says, impromptu fashion shows aside.
“You can probably ask anybody and they’ll tell you he’s the funniest guy they’ve ever had in a locker room,” Frei said. “That’s why it’s hard to find something, because it literally all blurs together. He’s just goofy at all times. It’s not like there’s a goofy Chad and a serious Chad. Goofy Chad is goofy at all times.”
That sense of humor was a necessary balm as Seattle churned through the most tumultuous of its eight MLS seasons and its first-ever coaching change. Marshall’s steadying influence at the back was invaluable as the Sounders shuffled through attacking combinations further up the field.
“When a team is in a dark place, you need to have those guys who can pick up the team and keep things somewhat happy,” Frei said.
Marshall has never been all that preoccupied with the spotlight. His influence shines brightly enough behind closed doors.