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

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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)

Report: American teenager linked with Manchester United

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The U.S. Men’s National Team is always looking for more Christian Pulisic-like players, and another star-in-the-making could be on his way to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Three keys for USMNT ahead of Panama clash ]

American teenager Will Vint is reportedly being pursued by Premier League giants Manchester United after previously having trialed with Fulham and Everton.

Vint, the 15-year-old son Everton academy director Peter Vint, has reportedly impressed the Red Devils while on trial as of late. Additionally, the teen’s Instagram page describes him as a “Footballer at Manchester United.”

The number of Americans in England’s top flight have dwindled down over recent years, however, USMNT mainstays like Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan (moving to Atlanta United) still reside in the PL.

Chapecoense announces match against Colombia’s Nacional

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SAO PAULO (AP) Brazilian club Chapecoense will play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional on April 4 in what will be an emotional home match.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina XI to face Bolivia ]

In November, 19 members of the Brazilian team died in an air crash outside Medellin as they travelled to play Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final. Out of 77 passengers, 71 died in the incident, including players, journalists, and club officials.

Chapecoense says they will play at 22,000-seat Arena Conda in southern Brazil in the first leg of the Recopa Sudamericana.

The tragedy made Atletico Nacional pronounce Chapecoense as champions, and the South American confederation agreed.

The Recopa Sudamericana is between the champions of the Copa Sudamericana and the Copa Libertadores.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.