When the Seattle Sounders play the LA Galaxy on Monday, there will more more at stake than three points in the Western Conference playoff race. The match will be a meeting between the club that has set the standard in Major League Soccer and the one club best placed to climb higher.
MLS is nearly two decades old now, and in that time, LA has come to represent the best the league has to offer. With four MLS Cups and as many Supporters' Shields, only D.C. United can rival the Galaxy for on-field success. Off the pitch, LA blazed the designated player trail with Landon Donovan and David Beckham, becoming the first club to penetrate the wider public consciousness since the Cosmos fizzled out. The club's stadium was the second soccer-specific venue in the country, remains the largest such ground, and was the crown jewel of the league's infrastructure for the better part of a decade.
Seattle is a relative newcomer, having only joined the league in 2009, but the Sounders have quickly blazed their own path toward glory. Their attendance numbers are consistently and by far the best in the league. They've made the playoffs every year, and made the U.S. Open Cup final in each of their first four, winning an unprecedented three in a row. The signing of Clint Dempsey last summer ushered in a new era of marquee player signings and what could be the best season any club has ever had in MLS.
Seattle is currently averaging 2.11 points per game, well on its way to claiming the Supporters' Shield and qualifying for the playoffs. It just so happens that the current MLS record for best PPG in a season is held by the LA Galaxy, who hit 2.12 back in 1998. That season, LA also set the single-season points record, 68.
With a win on Monday, Seattle would be on target to beat both of those marks.
Right now, MLS is beginning a transformative process more dramatic than any period since its founding. Record broadcast deals are being signed and new, deep-pocketed investors are buying into the league. The new money has already started to accumulate talent - Matt Besler and Graham Zusi signed DP deals in Kansas City, New York City landed David Villa and Frank Lampard, and Orlando has splashed for Kaka.
It's a process that English soccer went through with the formation of the Premier League in the early 90s. A look at the sport in that country at that time reveals an intriguing reality. The two most successful teams in that period were Manchester United, which won the first Premier League title in 1992-93, and Arsenal, which won the FA Cup that year. Those two clubs then dominated English soccer for the next 15 years, and their duopoly has only been intruded on by wealthy owners plunging enormous sums into rival outfits. It's no coincidence that the two largest stadiums in the English top flight are Old Trafford and the Emirates.
This is what's on the line for the teams that enter the more open, independent "MLS 3.0" era in a dominant position. And perhaps no club is better positioned to overtake the champions of the past and become North America's next superclub.
Portland — The Timbers showed that just maybe there's a little life in them yet with a comeback win over playoff rival Colorado, and Diego Valeri produced a fine strike for the winner. But Caleb Porter can't be thrilled that his team had to come back from a goal down yet again.
Coming up: It won't get much easier than this: Portland faces the worst-in-MLS Montreal Impact. A win would go a long way towards shutting up some critics, who will remain nameless and definitely don't write this column. Sunday, July 27, 7 p.m. PT - MLS Live.
Seattle — The Sounders had a friendly against Tottenham Hotspur during their bye week, and we learned that Brad Friedel has a heart of stone.
Coming up: LA looks to take the Sounders down a peg and pick up points in the uncomfortably close Western Conference playoff race. Monday, July 28, 7 p.m. PT - ESPN2.
Vancouver — A draw against a team as good as RSL, especially away, is never exactly a bad result. But the Whitecaps gave up a late goal to go three games without a win. That's not good enough if they want to be playing soccer past Halloween.
Coming up: A huge opportunity for points as the 'Caps take on Western Conference playoff rival FC Dallas. Sunday, July 27, 5 p.m. PT - MLS Live.
Follow KEITH HICKEY on