Coming into the 2014 season, very little was certain for Seattle Sounders defender Chad Marshall.
The veteran center back was traded to Seattle in the offseason after spending the first 10 years of his career with the Columbus Crew, a team that had since fallen off from its glory days when it won MLS Cup in 2008 under current Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. Entering 2014 the Crew had missed the playoffs in the previous two years and Marshall hadn’t made an MLS All-Star team in three.
It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Marshall -- who turned 30 years old midway through the 2014 season -- could return to the form that made him a two-time MLS Defender of the Year (2008, 2009).
Today, with Marshall and the Sounders seeking to claim the club's first-ever Supporters' Shield title (Saturday vs. LA Galaxy at 2:30 pm ET on NBC and TSN2), it seems funny that it was ever a question.
“In my eyes, he’s the best defender in MLS,” says Seattle forward Chad Barrett.
“He’s got to be a guy who is considered for Defender of the Year this year,” said Schmid, who coached Marshall in Columbus between 2006 and 2008.
Of course, Schmid and Barrett may be biased, but in a season that has seen Seattle show periodic vulnerability in its backline, Marshall’s value to the Sounders' defense is glaringly apparent to anyone who has watched the team play on a consistent basis.
“His aerial prowess, winning tackles, reading plays,” said Seattle midfielder Brad Evans, Marshall’s former teammate and roommate in Columbus, “I think his addition has been invaluable at this point.”
On a Seattle team that has cruised into a dead heat with the LA Galaxy for the Shield -- the trophy awarded to the team with the best regular season record -- largely on the strength of its high-powered offense (63 goals in 33 games), Marshall is probably an under-the-radar aspect of Seattle’s success. At least when it comes to the national consciousness.
Marshall also probably isn’t even the most recognizable face in Seattle’s backline. That distinction would go to DeAndre Yedlin, who vaulted into international prominence after a standout performance in the 2014 World Cup.
But ask any member of the Sounders roster or coaching staff which player is most crucial to Seattle’s all-around success, and they'll almost always mention the 6-foot-4 defender dubbed "The Air Marshall" by Sounders fans.
In fact, Evans says his former Crew teammate’s consistency and ability to win possession is actually a big reason why Seattle has had so much success offensively, particularly on counterattacks.
“Defending starts the attack,” Evan said. “Any time teams play in long balls, he can win headers and dish it off to a center midfielder. He’s so strong in the air that he can even put it beyond their center backs. It just keeps teams on their heels.”
As critical as he might be to the Sounders, the national recognition hasn't necessarily followed for now. Overshadowed by the more prominent attacking stars on his team, there's a relative lack of fanfare surrounding Marshall's 2014 campaign. But that suits him and his unassuming personality just fine.
“I don’t like to talk about myself much,” Marshall says. “I’ll let [the media] do that.”
The California native simply shrugs when asked if he feels like he's elevated his play this season after being traded from the Crew.
“I’d like to think I didn’t venture too far from that level [in Columbus],” he says. “Obviously here in Seattle we have a lot more nationally-televised games, and maybe people see me more than they did in Columbus, where we might only have one or two a year. So maybe it’s just we’re on national TV more.”
“Anytime you spend 10 years in a city, no matter what, you get comfortable and maybe that can drain you a little bit mentally,” Evans said. “Sometimes we need a little revival and I think this was a perfect opportunity. I know Chad had been asking. He wanted to come to Seattle. It’s a place where people get excited about playing.”
One of the biggest perks of being a Sounder? The crowds at CenturyLink Field.
“I think it’s the atmosphere of the stadium,” Marshall said when asked about the biggest change he’s experienced since the trade. “Columbus has great fans … But when they get it going, there’s nothing like CenturyLink.”
Something that hasn't changed about Marshall and his game: an aerial dominance unrivaled in MLS.
“His ability in the air speaks for itself,” Schmid said. “But he’s also positionally very, very good. He’s a very calming impact back there. He’s been a really good acquisition for our team and he's been one of the top defenders in the league.”
But as his teammates will tell you, Marshall doesn't simply win headers. His ability to place them with deadly accuracy and his use of his body to win and maintain possession are what truly define him as one of the league’s elite center backs.
He plays the position with intelligence, possessing a highly refined tactical understanding of how to read the ways in which opponents are going to attack his goal.
“He’s very smart in the way he uses his body,” Barrett said. “He uses his hands very well to make sure guys don’t get a good jump on a lot of the headers he wins. It’s all about his positioning and he’s become really good at it. He doesn’t just head it to the other team, he’s looking for others [teammates] – and that’s just one of the many facets of his game.”
When asked about Marshall’s aerial prowess, his fellow defender Zach Scott has an alternate theory.
“When you’ve got as big of a head as he has, I’d hope he’d be able to place those headers,“ Scott joked.
“But really, [Marshall] is just so composed,” Scott continued. “It’s very easy as a central defender to just think ‘clear it out to safety.’ But he’s one of those guys who can pick and choose those moments … He's not afraid to put a ball right on somebody’s foot.”
Any questions over Marshall’s true impact on Seattle’s backline were put to rest during the Sounders’ July 28 home match against the Galaxy, a game that Marshall had to sit out with a back injury sustained after he was rear-ended while driving home with Evans from a team barbeque.
In Marshall’s absence, LA ripped the Sounders for three goals. After the game, Barrett highlighted his absence as one of the main reasons for Seattle’s defensive struggles.
“Missing [Marshall] really hurt us,” Barrett said. “He’s such a big part of the way we play – the commander of our back line.”
But it's not just about what he does on defense. Although he has only one goal on the season – an 84th-minute game-winner during Seattle’s 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union on May 3 – he is always an imposing physical presence for opponents to worry about on attacking set pieces, too.
“It adds a different dimension to our team,” Evans said. “He was Defender of the Year two years in a row for a reason. Anytime you bring a player of his stature in, it makes you better automatically.”
But even with all the accolades and high praise, Marshall still has just 11 US national team caps for his career, scoring a goal during a 2005 match against Colombia. But even with two Defender of the Year awards under his belt, he still is seldom afforded the same level of notoriety as other more recognizable names in the league.
Will the 30-year-old veteran ever get back to the international level? (His last US appearance came back in January 2010 although he was on the 30-man shortlist for the 2010 World Cup.)
"Maybe it’s just because Columbus didn’t do as well the last couple of years that people sort of overlooked him a little," Schmid said. "But I’ve always believed Chad’s a good player, an All-Star quality player, a player who’s national-team caliber.”
What might give Marshall the best shot to return to a US camp is his durability -- something that wasn't always a guarantee in the past. After missing 17 games with concussion issues in 2007 and missing even more time in 2012, the veteran has started 30 games in each of the last two seasons and appears to have plenty of gas left in the tank.
“He’s definitely a guy who isn’t by any means on the downturn of his career,” Scott said. “He’s somebody who has still got a lot of good years left.”
Ari Liljenwall covers the Seattle Sounders for MLSsoccer.com.