Chad Marshall likes to keep his pregame routine uncluttered. No go-to music, no methodical, workaday string of superstitious locker room activities. Just a familiar meal and his treasured nap.
“I’m pretty chill on game days,” Marshall said.
His calm demeanor once the whistle blows is an appropriate reflection of the relaxed vibe he keeps in the space before and after games. He’s done it this way his entire career, which will assuredly go down as one of the finest for a defender in MLS history. To date, there’s an argument that it’s never been surpassed in its admixture of longevity and sustained form. Marshall turns 31 later this year, but there’s never been a better showman for the maxim that age is only a number.
“Chad’s a pretty cerebral guy,” Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “He doesn’t get really excited one way or the other. He’s really grown by leaps and bounds in his years in the league, and he’ll be the first to admit that when I first got to Columbus he and I bumped heads a little bit. But he adjusted, I adjusted and he’s been great. That’s why I tried to get him here.”
Marshall is up to his old tricks through the Sounders’ first four matches of 2015. His 82.5-percent completion rate on his passes is square with his efforts last season, and he’s already cut out 13 interceptions in just 270 minutes played. Spice in that he’s winning nearly 80-percent of his challenges and aerial duals this season, not to mention anchoring a backline that’s produced three shutouts in the team’s first four league matches. All with a new centerback partner in Brad Evans and a new face at rightback in Tye Mears.
Marshall is a three-time MLS Defender of the Year, more than anyone in MLS history, but he put in perhaps his magnum opus to win his most recent honor in his first season with Sounders FC in 2014. Marshall logged 3,150 MLS minutes last season - more than all but three MLS defenders - and managed to be nearly as important as the foundation of the build-up as he was in blunting attacks.
Defensively, his 7.1 clearances per match in 2014 was third in the league among players who played at least 2,000 minutes, and his 4.3 won aerial challenges per match was first in the same category. By the end of the season, teams simply started re-routing attacks to avoid him. But the real hallmark of Marshall’s unique skill-set came along the ground. The sturdily built centerback completed a staggering 83-percent of his passes in 2014, better than most of the league’s midfielders. That provided a vital conduit to help the Osvaldo Alonso-led midfield build and counter with a serious ball-playing centerback at the base of the spine.
Marshall’s nimble, almost balletic work with possession belies his size (at six-foot-four, he’s no diminutive technician), as well as his 11 muscle-sapping years and more than 250 appearances in the league. That he can continue to operate as a legitimate ball-playing centerback is a testament to his longevity.
“I’ve always been comfortable on the ball and then trying to find people with headers and first-time clearances,” Marshall said. “I like having the ball and trying to find the forward’s feet or a midfielder that’s checking in, and not just being a defender that just lumps it forward all the time. It’s been something coaches I’ve had over the years have wanted, so I’ve tried to be good in that area.”
One of Marshall’s most pressing tasks this season has been to provide a steady presence for his new centerback partner. Evans is no stranger to the pro game, but this season marks the renaissance man’s first professional foray into the position. He encountered some notable turbulence in a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on March 14, but Evans put in man of the match-caliber performances in both a scoreless draw on the road against FC Dallas and the most recent 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo.
Entering a tough road test against the LA Galaxy this weekend, Marshall has never felt more comfortable with Evans at his side. Against Houston, Marshall’s 82-percent pass rate was only bested by two of his teammates. One of those was Alonso. The other was Evans.
“He just knows what he’s doing back there,” Evans said. “That makes it easy on me. I don’t really have to worry about the guy next to me. I’m always going to be there to cover him. It never seems like I’m the one yelling at him, he’s always the one yelling at me, so I’m still learning the position and trying to figure things out for myself.”
The Sounders now turn their gaze toward the Galaxy, who knocked them out of the postseason last year on a stunning strike from Juninho in the Second Leg of the Western Conference Championship. With the defense operating at midseason efficiency levels and Marshall feeling as lively as he ever has, the team feels it’s in a good place to meet the unique challenges presented by the league’s defending champs.
As for whether the end of last season will provide any motivation this weekend, let’s just say Marshall isn’t ruling out the idea.
“I don’t think anyone on our team is really over it,” Marshall said. “We know they’re the ones that beat us and ultimately went on to win the championship. It’s always a heated game with them. The meetings last year were intense and meaningful. We know it’s going to be a big game, but I don’t think we can dwell too much on the past. It’s a new season.”