The L.A. Galaxy enters Saturday's nationally televised match at CenturyLink Field nine points above Seattle in the Western Conference and lording over its one-time challenger.
Bruce Arena’s L.A. Galaxy is not known for its compassion.
No team in the league is as likely to punish an off night with an embarrassingly lopsided scoreline. The five-time MLS Cup champions are ruthless – sensing an opponent’s vulnerability, they slip in the knife.
And so ahead of their nationally televised clash with the Sounders on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, with Seattle mired in the most trying of the club’s eight MLS seasons, it’s no surprise that the Galaxy marked the occasion with some well-placed kidney shots.
The Sounders finally knocked L.A. out of the playoffs last season for the first time in four tries – but were themselves eliminated by Dallas just one round later. They won the 2014 Supporters’ Shield at the Galaxy’s expense but lost to them in the Western Conference finals just a few weeks later.
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Seattle enters the weekend nine points behind the fourth-place Galaxy and seven points out of the playoff spots.
“When they came into the league, I think they called us out,” L.A. midfielder Mike Magee told the team website this week. “They thought they’d challenge us, and it didn’t work out well for them. They’re still trying to be what the Galaxy is.
“They’re doing a great job. They have great fans and a great team, but I’d say, to be honest with you, they’re a little jealous.”
Added defender A.J. DeLaGarza, with the smug condescension typical of established powers worldwide: “I think they hate us more than we hate them, but everyone hates us, so we’re used to it.”
Los Angeles is eagerly embracing the villain tag earned by both years of consistent success and an offseason of polarizing signings. While most of last year’s MLS contenders skewed younger and more organically grown, the Galaxy doubled down by adding three more aging European stars.
L.A. signed Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme, who was once accused of racial abuse by former U.S. national team member Oguchi Onyewu. It added Ashley Cole, a perceived mercenary nicknamed “Cashley” back in his native England as well as Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong, one of the most notorious enforcers in the game.
They arrive in Seattle with the league’s best goal-differential despite a paltry 1-3-4 mark away from the StubHub Center.
The Sounders will be heartened both by L.A.’s underwhelming road record and the return of forward Clint Dempsey, who got back from U.S. national team duty prior to last weekend’s Toronto FC draw but was given a week off to recover.
Dempsey was the USMNT’s standout performer at Copa America Centenario, tallying three goals and three assists as the team reached the semifinals. He at times seemed to will the squad forward, every goal and defiant celebration radiating outward.
“More than anything, he’s just a player who is beaming with confidence,” Sounders forward Herculez Gomez said. “Goals don’t go in, wins don’t go your way and you start lacking confidence. It’s natural. It’s normal. When you bring in a player who oozes that right now, that can only be a plus for you.”
His international form hasn’t always translated over to MLS. The 33-year-old has scored just two goals and has yet to register an assist in 10 league games so far this season.
“My approach is always kind of the same,” Dempsey said. “I try to do my best wherever I’m at, whether it’s for club or country.”
If ever there were a time to shift into that vengeful-protagonist mode he sometimes busts out for the USMNT, this would be the moment. The Sounders face the Galaxy three times this month, twice at home and once on the road in the U.S. Open Cup. Their old bully is standing over them once more, pressing a heavy boot into their collective chest.
“There’s not one player who can put the team on his back,” Gomez said, referencing Lionel Messi’s missed penalty kick for Argentina in the Copa America final. “I think you saw that (with Messi). It’s going to take a group effort. Clint is one of the many pieces and players here that’s very capable of doing things, but it’s unfair to him and unfair to the group to say one guy has to put the team on his back.”
What Dempsey can do is set the tone, scowling across enemy lines at a familiar foe. He’s never been one for leniency, either, especially with recent taunts ringing in his ears.