Seattle Sounders’ new system allows star attackers to shine

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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.”

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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.

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.

Ballack acknowledges difficult decision ahead for John Terry

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For the better part of 19 years John Terry has been a staple of Chelsea’s backline.

[ WATCH: Zaha nets first international goal for Ivory Coast ]

With his future at Stamford Bridge becoming more and more in doubt though, it appears it’s time for the 36-year-old to move on from his longtime club, and that’s a decision that another former Chelsea player doesn’t envy.

[ MORE: Everton’s Coleman breaks leg on Ireland duty ]

Ex-Blues midfielder Michael Ballack knows that Terry has options, whether it be in Major League Soccer, the Chinese Super League or even with another Premier League club, but the German says it’s difficult because of what the centerback has meant to Chelsea.

“He is a player with that history and charisma,” Ballack, who spent four years with Chelsea during his playing days, told Sky Sports. “He’s such a Chelsea boy and they love him there.

“I know what it means if your career comes to an end and you’re getting older. You don’t know whether you extend your contract, play for another club or go abroad to America.

“I’m sure he has some options but if you think long-term, you have to feel comfortable with the decision.

For the first time in years, Terry has failed to establish himself as a first-team regular largely due to Antonio Conte‘s three-back system. The 36-year-old has appeared in just five PL matches this campaign, while making 10 appearances overall for the Blues, who currently sit atop England’s top flight and are in position to go for the double with the FA Cup semifinals lurking.

Terry himself has acknowledged that his career is nearing its end, but knowing the competitive drive that has made the Englishman great throughout his almost 20-year career, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll just give up his playing days without a fight.