SEATTLE — After failing to record a point in his first 590 minutes as a Seattle Sounders player, Clint Dempsey tallied a goal and an assist in the last two games. His newfound production can be attributed largely to a change in the team’s formation.
Head coach Sigi Schmid moved away from his usual 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders and two wingers in a 1-1 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, in the team’s last regular-season game. He stuck with it on Wednesday, and Seattle beat the Colorado Rapids, 2-0, in the Western Conference play-in game.
Dempsey started at the point of the diamond, with Osvaldo Alonso in the holding role and Adam Moffat and Brad Evans on either side. Evans scored the first goal of the game, in the 28th minute, following a build-up in which Dempsey played a heavy role. Eddie Johnson’s stoppage-time strike came directly off Dempsey’s foot.
“I thought we played well in [the formation], especially when it was Evans and Ozzie and Moffat,” Schmid said after the game. “I thought their cohesion was pretty good and allowed Clint the freedom to go.”
But with minimal time to train and implement the new lineup, not all players have had a chance to familiarize themselves with the system. Marc Burch replaced injured fullback DeAndre Yedlin at halftime, when Evans slid to right back. Burch played a little more erratically than Evans in the midfield, at times stretching too far.
“Burch really hadn’t trained in that position,” Schmid said. “He’s more either a wide guy or fullback, so he played a little bit wider, and that threw us off a little bit, but it wasn’t his fault. He just hasn’t had that time in there, but I think we’ll be OK.”
However, Dempsey said he felt comfortable.
“Just whatever’s going to help this team keep the ball a little bit more, help us create chances more and depending on if it helps us be more dangerous in attack: that’s all that matters,” he said. “Whatever position they put me in that I’m able to influence the game in a positive way is a position I like. So far, these last two games, I’ve gotten a goal and an assist, and it’s good to be contributing.”
He and Johnson provided the thrust for a relentless Sounders attack that peppered the Rapids’ net with 14 attempts on goal and four shots on target. Dempsey played two passes that resulted directly in a shot, while Johnson made five key passes.
Finding a rhythm in training has allowed the longtime friends to be in-sync during recent games as well. Johnson missed three of the last four regular-season games with an injury and international duty, while Dempsey did not play in the three preceding matches.
Now, Johnson said, they are starting to look dangerous.
“We do a lot of exercises where myself, Clint and [forward Lamar] Neagle play against three guys in the back,” Johnson said. “The coaches always [say] in training: find solutions between the three of us. I feel like the last two games, we’ve been able to find each other and combine with each other. The more games, the better we’re going to get.”
That can only bode well for Seattle moving forward. Schmid may have finally found a system that allows his big-name players to perform at their best at the same time. Obafemi Martins’ return from a groin injury will only make the team stronger.
“We’ll develop our game plan and be ready,” Schmid said. “As we develop more understanding of where we’re going to be, then that just allows [Dempsey] to get balls in more dangerous positions.”
The Sounders host their biggest rival, the Portland Timbers, on Saturday in the conference semifinals. A tough Timbers midfield should test Seattle’s resilience in its new formation, as well as give Dempsey and Johnson more problems to solve.