On May 22, the news came out of Seattle that Crew legend Chad Marshall retired in the midst of his 16th MLS season. He left behind a list of accomplishments as tall as the man himself. The 6’4” defender was a two-time MLS Cup champion, including the game-winning goal for the Crew in MLS Cup 2008. He was part of four Supporters’ Shield winners and one U.S. Open Cup championship. He earned MLS Best XI honors four times, made four All-Star teams, and was the MLS Defender of the Year on three occasions.
From his rookie year in 2004 until his final start on May 4, 2019, Marshall was worth seven points and seven net goals to his teams on a season-rate basis. In his 404 regular season starts, his team played at a 34-game pace of 54 points with a +6 goal differential. In the 92 games he didn’t start during that span, including his five substitute appearances, those very same teams played at a 34-game pace of 47 points with a (-1) goal differential.
Chad Marshall was a difference-maker. And to me, I will always think about how he proved the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Jon Busch was the goalkeeper who played behind Marshall for his first few years in Columbus. He was also part of the most memorable play in Marshall’s storied MLS career.
“The only good thing now that Chad’s retiring is maybe I will never see that damn picture of him slam dunking on me and McBride in the conference final anymore,” Busch said with a laugh.
That damn picture was captured by Jay LaPrete of the Associated Press. Marshall out-leaped aerially dominant U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Brian McBride to head home the equalizing goal past Busch in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final. The Crew went on to beat Chicago 2-1 on the way to winning MLS Cup.
“I’m getting a little bit tired of seeing that picture,” Busch said. “My hope is now that he’s retired, maybe that picture will stop resurfacing. That hopeless look on my face…”
Okay, if that photo served as the cover for the metaphorical book of Chad Marshall, it would produce an accurate judgement in this sense—for 16 seasons, the man dominated on the pitch and literally rose to the occasion in big moments. It’s all right there in one iconic, career-defining photo.
Marshall came to the Crew by pure happenstance. He was the consensus #1 pick in the draft until 14-year-old wunderkind Freddy Adu decided to turn pro. The league wanted Adu’s destination to be his hometown D.C. United, but this was in the heavy single-entity days before homegrown players and designated players. MLS had to engineer Adu’s delivery to D.C. via the draft, so Dallas was, um, “persuaded” to trade away the first pick in the draft for various other assets. Instead of Marshall going #1 overall to Dallas, the Crew gleefully scooped him up with the second pick. At just 19 years old, Marshall improbably stepped into the starting lineup for a team that would win the Supporters’ Shield in large part due to its defense.
“To come in and to be able to contribute right away like he did is really rare,” said Brian Maisonneuve, currently the men’s soccer coach at Ohio State, who was in his final MLS season during Marshall’s rookie campaign. “You could see that he had everything that it took. From his frame, to his size, his feet were good, he could read the game well, he’s a smart kid….he had all of these skillsets. Do you expect a kid like that to come in and start on that team? You’d probably never expect it, but once we saw him play and preseason was over, it was pretty clear what Chad could do.”
Another benefit in those early days was that Marshall got to learn from a seasoned and accomplished professional in Robin Fraser, who won MLS Defender of the Year during Marshall’s rookie season.
“When you’re around senior guys like Fras, you just naturally learn from those guys,” Busch said. “Chad had a fantastic education from a bunch of great senior pros that I think helped advance him quicker than most rookies or young guys coming in.”
It wouldn’t be long before Marshall took the reins and was the central leader of the defense from a very young age. He dominated in all the most obvious ways.
“You have a guy who’s 6’4” and could jump over the roof and was this huge mountain that opposing players had to contend with because he won everything in the air,” said former Crew teammate Danny O’Rourke.
Duncan Oughton, the only other player apart from Marshall to play ten years in Columbus, recalled that Chad’s size helped horizontally as well as vertically. “He had these legs that could reach around strikers and get to the ball first,” he said. “And he was a lot quicker than people give him credit for.”
“He could cover so much ground,” added Busch. “He could mark somebody out of the game. It’s something that doesn’t come around that often, where you have the soccer IQ but you also have the physical domination that goes with it.”
An overshadowed aspect of Marshall’s game was how calm and assured he was with the ball at his feet. Marshall won balls on the ground in productive ways that started the attack, whether it was a simple pass to advance the ball or starting a counterattack with a precision long ball. It’s a facet of Marshall’s game that William Hesmer, the goalkeeper behind Marshall during the Crew’s late-aughts glory run, is happy to trumpet.
“I don’t think there’s a center back in MLS who has ever been as good with their feet,” Hesmer said. “Left footed, right-footed, you want touch, you want power, you want a guy who’s winning various balls and he’s winning them in ways that maintain possession. I could go on and on about how he good he is at that.”
Expounding on the latter point, current Crew defender Josh Williams spoke of how playing outside back next to Marshall caused him to see the game a different way and inspired him to become a better player.
“The principles of defending are different with Chad,” he said with a laugh.
Williams noted that when seeing the center back going up for an aerial challenge, an outside back will normally tuck in behind to provide cover. With Marshall patrolling the skies, Williams unlearned a lifetime of habits so he could make a run forward instead.
“I knew a diagonal directed header was coming into my path,” he explained. “His ability to maintain possession through clearances, it’s not an easy thing to do. A lot of defenders panic in those situations or you’re in situations where you just have to defend, but can you start a counter the other way instead of just clearing a ball into a random space? Can you connect it with teammates moving downfield? He was incredible at that. It’s something I added to my game through him.”
Marshall also brought an entirely different psychological impact to the game. For example, most teams will concede fouls to neutralize a dangerous situation. “But against us they couldn’t do that,” Hesmer said, noting that the mere threat of a Marshall restart opportunity opened the game for the Crew’s skill players like Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers, Alejandro Moreno, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto. “(Opposing defenses) had to concede more space. He made our offense just that much more dynamic.”
When you factor in his aerial dominance, his passing ability, his constructive ball-winning, and his indirect ability to create space for his own team’s attackers, it all adds up to an interesting stat. In Marshall’s 404 starts, despite the fact that he was a central defender, his teams averaged 36% more goals per game than in his absences and non-starts.
Hesmer noted even more ways that Marshall impacted every game in which he played. He simplified the goalkeeper’s job by reducing the need to take iffy chances on tough crosses. He completely altered the corner kick psychology of the opposing team by forcing the taker to deviate from his standard service in order to avoid Marshall’s expansive air space. Marshall gave his team confidence and freedom by covering for mistakes or providing the feeling that that even if they conceded the first goal, they were just one restart away from being right back in the game. (The 2008 championship team scored the first goal on only 13 occasions and averaged over a point per game when conceding the first goal.)
But let’s face it. Everyone is going to remember Chad Marshall as an air marshal.
“We always had McBride,” Maisonneueve said, “but I remember from that very first year thinking that Chad’s even bigger, his timing his great, and he’ll stick his head in spots where not many people would. I loved watching him.”
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.