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Does Clint Dempsey’s arrival make Seattle an MLS contender?

Aug 3, 2013, 4:40 PM EDT

D.C. United v Seattle Sounders FC Getty Images

Clint Dempsey’s heralded arrival answers a lot of questions around CenturyLink, where the ongoing search for reliable finishers has sometimes guided the Sounders down some tricky and confounding rabbit holes.

Today’s smack-upside the head of major MLS news – easily the league’s biggest signing since David Beckham back in 2007, not to mention the most shocking since than January morning when Becks climbed loudly aboard the Good Ship MLS – also serves to stir new interest and gin up the buzz around domestic soccer’s highest tier. You can never get enough of that in Major League Soccer (especially not with all national TV deals expiring after next year).

But in the end, is it enough to make the Seattle Sounders an MLS contender? Because as of today, the Sounders aren’t even an MLS playoff team, currently in seventh place (although with games in hand on every Western Conference club.)

The problem with Seattle this year is one of “average.” Two of the game-breakers of the last two years, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales, are either gone (Montero) or faded (Rosales). Steve Zakuani was an emerging game-breaker back in 2010, with 10 goals, 6 assists and sufficient speed to scare the logo off every opposition right back’s cleats. Sadly, Zakuani may never be that same man again.

The defense is OK, with steady ‘keeper Michael Gspurning backstopping a line of defense that is passable, but nothing to knock on the door and tell the neighbors about. Same for a midfield that rightly revolves around the Rock of Alonso – Osvaldo Alonso, that is.

Past Alonso, the league’s top ball winner, guys like Lamar Neagle, Brad Evans, Shalrie Joseph, Rosales and others all have their plusses and minuses.

Again, there is a lot of “just OK” doing the work inside the Sounders’ teeming downtown ground.

Dempsey’s arrival can provide the “something special” that’s been missing. Sounders management thought they had it in Obafemi Martins, and his 6 goals in 13 appearances this year isn’t too shabby. But Martins doesn’t have Dempsey’s drive, nor his ability to create in a numbers of ways.

(MORE: Is it really so hard to understand Dempsey’s move?)

At four goals in 12 matches, Eddie Johnson cannot exactly stamp “difference maker” across his resume for 2013, either. That total shrinks a little further into the background when we consider how desperately Johnson wants to stay in Seattle, coveting that big, fat contract once his deal expires in a few months. That is to say, we might have expected more so far this year from “GAM.”

In Dempsey, Johnson and Martins, the Sounders have a trio of attackers that can stand with some of the best ever seen in MLS, especially if right-sided playmaker Rosales can catch the beat anew.

Last year at this time, we wondered if Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane represented the top attacking trio over seen in around the league?  The Dempsey-Martins-Johnson ensemble isn’t there … but it’s certainly a blue ribbon gathering.

There is a great breakdown here from Sounder at Heart on all the ways Sounders boss Sigi Schmid might use Dempsey. It underscores what is quintessentially Dempey: his useful versatility, that ability to be effective at several positions, primarily out wide where we saw him so much at Fulham or underneath a striker as we see him with the national team.

Either way, Dempsey takes someone of the “average” variety off the field, replacing him with a warrior, someone who lives and breathes for the next match, the next opportunity with the ball at his feet, the next win – and with the skill and instinct that makes it all work.

(MORE: Where Dempsey’s signing ranks in MLS Designated Player history)

Assuming good health for Dempsey and assuming Johnson sees the blockbuster move as it serves the greater good (rather than becoming a locker room distraction because this isn’t the best for him personally), Seattle will make the playoffs.

And one thing has not changed in Major League Soccer through all the years: you just have to squeeze into the post-season. It’s harder today to arrive into the final as a fourth- or fifth-place team, but the lower-ranked clubs can surely get there; Fourth-place Los Angeles and fifth-place Houston reminded us so last year.

Seattle will make the playoffs just based on Dempsey’s arrival. If the defense improves a notch – there’s still time to achieve that aim through a personnel move; Seattle suddenly has an expendable asset or two as trade bait, eh? – and if Alonso can stay healthy, which has been harder to do this year, the Sounders are an MLS Cup contender.

Because right now there is not one team standing out as a kingpin contender – just a few jostling for position to be called one.

(MORE: Steve Nicol, Dempsey’s former manager, comments on Saturday’s big move)

  1. tylerbetts - Aug 3, 2013 at 6:50 PM

    I don’t know if we’re asking the right question here.

    Almost certainly, Clint Dempsey will make Seattle a contender this year. Heck, with the games in hand and no real favorite, you could argue they were a contender before Dempsey arrived.

    But, for Seattle, it can’t be just about contending for trophies. It has to be about winning them.

    This is a team that has made the MLS Cup Playoffs every year they have been in MLS. Yet, they have only a single series win – that one coming last year.

    I think the right question to ask is … how many trophies does Seattle need to win for this to be a good move for them?

    They can already check most boxes you want checked – high attendance, good shirt sponsor (though, that’s about to expire, if I’m not mistaken, so maybe Deuce helps there, too), a brand ESPN wants for game of the week – except for in the trophy case.

    Yes, they have the US Open Cups. And, yes, I love the Open Cup.

    But it’s not the big prize. It’s not the second biggest prize. And, it’s not the prize no one else in MLS has been able to grab yet.

    For Seattle, that’s what it’s got to come down to. Can Deuce help them lift the MLS Cup? Can Deuce help the best Supporters in MLS cherish the Supporters Shield? Can Deuce lead Sounders to a CCL Championship?

    Check yes on all of those – and maybe on one of them a second time – and this is a success for Seattle.

    But, with that price tag, and all the hype surrounding the move … anything less than that?

    • mvktr2 - Aug 4, 2013 at 1:34 AM

      Hopefully this and ‘retention funds’ are a sign of improving pay scales and a sign that MLS is making a significant, not huge but meaningful, attempt at bringing in a greater depth of international talent.

      I mention this ^ before addressing your quite accurate trophy question because it plays into why MLS will need things to fall the right way in order to win a CCL trophy. Simply put Liga MX teams have far more depth and more quality throughout their overall rosters when compared to MLS clubs of similar standing. Where we see the impact of the reality of building a team under MLS salary cap restrictions is in depth and teams also simply have to accept being less than they’d like in certain areas. Seattle for example with Alonso @ DM with Joseph providing depth is a perfect arrangement, same with having EJ, Martins, & Demps up top being backed up by a surging Neagle. However Rosales has been on a major slide of form since mid 2012 season, father time has caught up to him … 😦 which saddens me greatly because for about a year and a half he was one of the most exciting creators in MLS, just love his game. Evans is good in the midfield for service but is better at linking play, there isn’t another creative force on the team to push Evans/Rosales or replace them as I feel Rosales needs replacing. Then you get to Gonzales and Hurtata whom I’ve never been huge fans of. However I’ve always accepted their level of play in MLS because it’s a result of the salary cap. In 10 years say if the league’s media rights are in the 250 mil range and league teams average 15 million in player salaries rather than the 4 or so currently players like Gonzales & JKH will make good depth and still have a place in the league, just not as everyday starters.

      Point being that as excited as I am to see the bold thinking and bold move of MLS/Sounders the reality of having severely hampered teams in MLS remains a big hurdle which takes a bit of luck to overcome if MLS is to claim it’s first CCL crown. As to is it enough for Supporters Shield/MLS Cup I’m sort of skeptical of a lot of those also. One or one of each in the coming 4 years, sure … absolutely. However I’m fairly down on the creative forces in Seattle’s midfield, EJ has said as much. The service just hasn’t been there. I know I’m perhaps needlessly harping on this as there is at least a 50% chance Dempsey takes over the AM spot as Sigi tries to figure out just how to get all the scoring pieces on the field together. That of course could take time even if Seattle had just purchased Messi & Ronaldo to go along with Dempsey.

      As to the article’s question, YES, Seattle are contenders and as tylerbetts says they sort of already were.

  2. talgrath - Aug 4, 2013 at 5:21 AM

    After their win against Dallas today, I think it’s safe to say a Dempsey-included Sounders is a strong contender to get in to the playoffs. The biggest issue the Sounders have had all year is injuries and World Cup absences. Every single 1st team offensive player for the Sounders has been been injured at some point this year; Zakuani’s hernia, Mauro Rosales usual bouts with leg injuries, Brad Evens was out a game with a muscle strain of some sort, Alonso’s absence is well-documented, Eddie Johnson had some form of injury at one point and Martins had some leg problems initially. Even the defense has seen some major injuries, Deandre Yedlin suffered a dislocated shoulder for a few games the Sounders had their fourth (4th!) string goalie between the sticks, having to call him up from loan to USL. The Sounders you saw today were almost the complete first team, and it shows; Dallas, who scored two in a 4-2 loss that was a wide open game the last time they came to Seattle, got smacked 3-0 in a game that never really looked close. Add in Dempsey and those games in hand and I’m pretty confident the Sounders will see the playoffs and would be a strong favorite to win the west, if not the whole thing.

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