Days before Clint Dempsey was introduced at CenturyLink Field, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid was on local KJR radio. Seattle had just opened a Designated Player spot by renegotiating Shalrie Joseph’s contract and with his team sitting outside of the playoffs, Schmid was asked what the team would be looking for in a new Designated Player.
Hoping to “add something significant,” the Sounders would be looking to strengthen their spine. “[D]efinitely somebody in the middle of the field,” Schmid told KJR, though he also told host Dave Mahler about the Dempsey rumors, “there’s really nothing to it. There’s nothing to say.” I’m not sure how much we can trust this guy.
Given what we learned today, the Dempsey deal seemed to come together relatively quickly. At today’s press conference, Adrian Hanauer told a story that stretched back two years, but from real start to end of this move, it was only a couple of weeks. Dempsey’s people made some calls in mid-July. Seattle quickly decided they wanted to do it. The league worked out how to pay for it, and after Dempsey gulped a few times and jumped, and the thing was basically over.
Now comes the hard part: the part where Schmid has to win games. That means finding a quick fit for Dempsey in Seattle’s system (or “a” Seattle system), as any prolonged adjustment period would leave the seventh place Sounders gone come November. With Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson already occupying spots up top, this is not a plug-and-play scenario.
If we’re willing to re-trust the guy a little, Schmid said wants help through the middle, which hints Dempsey’s likely to occupy an attacking midfield spot behind Seattle’s two strikers. With Osvaldo Alonso an obligatory starter at the base of midfield, that only leaves two more spots beyond Seattle’s defense and goalkeeper.
Among the candidates, there are two obvious choices:
- The respect Schmid has for Brad Evans shouldn’t be underestimated. No matter the talent that Seattle’s acquired since joining Major League Soccer in 2009, a healthy Brad Evans has always been given a chance to contribute. If there are two spots available in midfield, Evan’s versatility and intelligence is sure to claim one.
- The other selection is just as obvious, at least at the start. There’s a reason Mauro Rosales now wears the armband for the Sounders. Schmid has tremendous respect for what he brings to the team beyond his playmaking, skill on the ball, crossing and set piece delivery. Rosales slots into the other spot.
Getting those pieces to fit will be tricky. Do you go with a diamond in midfield? A line for three behind the strikers, with Evans (left) and Rosales flanking Dempsey, relying on Alonzo to be his typical, equalizing self? Or do you do something more tailored to your players? Perhaps playing Evans slightly left of middle, allow Rosales to play a right wing, and rely on Brad and Clint’s versatility to use and defend that left flank?
Or maybe Schmid takes a page out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s playbook are starts Eddie Johnson wide? With Rosales on the opposite side, the opportunity to cross onto an oncoming Johnson challenging a right back is tantalizing.
There are various ways to make this work, and the challenges go beyond merely putting the pieces together. When playing attacking midfield for the national team, Dempsey is often too easily forced into negative balls, at times leaving the U.S. with huge possession edges and little to show for it. The Kyle Beckermans and Hendry Thomases of the world are sure to take note, and if they’re able to force those wide and backward passes, the team might find itself unduly relying on Alonso’s and Evans’ distribution.
If, however, Schmid can get around that, perhaps utilizing Rosales’s skill set and allowing Dempsey the freedom to perform at his opportunistic best, there’s no reason this move can’t be as big as the rest of MLS fears. We’ll begin to find out Saturday in Toronto whether this is the turning point in Seattle’s season or the 2013 Sounders become the latest example of a talented team that just couldn’t make it work.