Major League Soccer has never experienced anything quite like this year's Supporters' Shield race. Sure, there have been very good teams battling it out in the same year. Twice before, in fact, two teams have claimed more than 60 points in a season. And there have been many times that the race came down to the final few weeks.
Making it all the better is that we'll all be treated to the spectacle of these two teams facing off in what is effectively a home-and-home series to end the season. Yes, that's right, MLS in all its crazy thinking decided to have the Sounders and Galaxy finish their respective seasons with two games against one another.
The schedule makers, of course, had no way of knowing that this is how it would play out, but you have to think that they were dreaming it would and now they are just cackling to themselves at their genius. That the first game, in Los Angeles, is on ESPN2 and the second, in Seattle, is on NBC is just too perfect.
Has this ever happened in modern football? Considering the vast majority of leagues only allow their teams to play each other twice all season, it seems a safe bet that it hasn't.
But even ignoring the historic significance/oddity of the event, soccer fans are sure to be in for a treat.
They both feature free-flowing offenses that are equally capable of lashing out on quick counter-strikes or building through long passing sequences. Those attacks are led by players who aren't just great by MLS standards, but who have proven themselves on the international stage. On one side, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan; on the other, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
Led by those dynamic duos, both teams are making assaults on the MLS record books.
Aside from the 1998 LA Galaxy who somehow managed post a +44 goal-difference during their 32-game season, no MLS team has even gone +30. This year's Galaxy is currently on +35, a number that is made even more impressive when you consider they were +1 following their eighth match of the season. Over their past 23 games, the Galaxy have outscored opponents 58-24 and gone 15-2-6. The last time the Galaxy lost a match was on Aug. 16. Since then, they've gone 8-0-2 and posted a +23 goal-difference. Six times the Galaxy have scored at least four goals in a game and they've scored at three on five other occasions. All but one of those scoring outbursts have come since May 17, which was also the last time the Galaxy were shut out.
It has been a dizzying run of dominance, quite unlike anything MLS has seen in recent history.
But the Galaxy could very well lose out to the Sounders, a team poised to make their own history.
With one more win, the Sounders would become the first MLS team in the post-shootout era to win as many as 20 games in a season. They've not been nearly as dominant as the Galaxy, posting a comparably pedestrian +14, but that's made for some wildly entertaining matches. There was the 4-4 draw in Portland that kick-started their season and featured two goals in the final five minutes, which turned out to be the first of eight occasions in which the Sounders claimed the result-deciding goal after the 80th minute. There was the roaring come-from-behind 3-2 win at FC Dallas the following week that proved to be the first of six times the Sounders have erased a deficit to win this year. There was the 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids last week in which flare passes and trick shots were almost commonplace, and was also the sixth time the Sounders had scored at least four goals.
After a brief hiccup, the Sounders have recovered to claim their fourth U.S. Open Cup title in six years and to win six of their past eight.
But let's not get lost in the numbers. There's something about both of these teams that must be seen to be appreciated.
Donovan, for all his accomplishments, has rarely played better than he is right now. Ever since making his decision to retire at the year, he's been playing with a newfound freedom. The schlubby start to the year, which made it a little too easy for Jurgen Klinsmann to leave the most decorated American soccer player in history off the World Cup roster, is long forgotten. Over his past 13 games, he's scored seven goals and has 15 assists. His passing has an extra sharpness, his runs an extra push, his shot even seems better.
Keane may best him for MVP honors, though. At 34, he continues to prove ageless and is enjoying one of his finest seasons in his professional career. The 19 goals and 14 assists are certainly impressive in their own right. How he's getting them -- with impossible volleys and slicing through multiple defenders -- is what's really showing how little his skills have degraded since leaving Europe three seasons ago.
No team is just two great players, of course. Up and coming American Gyasi Zardes is coming of age before our eyes, Robbie Rogers is getting back into the national team picture at a new position, Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho are highly efficient center mids and Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza are reprising their role of the dominating center back tandem that led the Galaxy to back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
There's a similarly outstanding collection of talent in Seattle as well.
Dempsey and Martins seem intent on putting on a show every time they take the field. They've set one another up for nine goals this year, often working give-and-goes that look both shockingly easy and impossible to stop. They'll attempt passes through the smallest seams, sometimes to the detriment of open teammates, but it works so often that their coaches don't seem to mind. Back-heels and flicks are just par for the course, these days, as they often appear to be attempting to turn the Sounders into the soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, leaving defenses often playing the roll of hapless Washington Generals.
Their faithful sidekicks have usually been Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa, two players on different ends of the creativity spectrum. Pappa fits in nicely with the trickiness, as he showed with his own cheeky chip of Clint Irwin last week. Neagle is the more direct of the foursome, always willing to run at defenders, crash the back post or hustle back on defense.
The Sounders defense hasn't been much to speak of, but that only makes things more fun to watch. Even with Osvaldo Alonso doing his best to shield them and Chad Marshall playing his best soccer since his MLS Defender of the Year days, that defense has been leaking goals. Even if the Sounders don't give up another goal, the 47 they've already allowed would be the most a Supporters' Shield winner has given up since D.C. United allowed 53 in 1997.
There's no shortage of subplots here either. Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena have been rivals since both were patrolling the sidelines of their respective top-ranked college teams 20 years ago. Donovan will be playing his final home match and then his final regular-season match in front of a 65,000 rave green-clad fans. Dempsey has already taken over as the face of U.S. Soccer and is poised to do the same with MLS. Martins was supposed to be the Sounders' answer to Keane and the two are locked in a battle for MVP. The Galaxy have dominated the Sounders on the biggest stages up until now, including a 3-0 thumping earlier this year. Might it be time for a changing of the guard or are the Galaxy just building their dynasty resume?
There is, of course, one match left to play for each team before this two-part drama can really unfold. The Sounders are attempting to win back the Cascadia Cup they haven't held since 2011 and host the Vancouver Whitecaps on Friday. The Galaxy have a potentially tricky road match against FC Dallas. But whatever happens this week, both the Galaxy and Sounders will control their own destiny. A pair of wins by either team will secure the Shield, and cement their place in history. Either way, these matches promise to have a permanent place in our hearts.