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.
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.
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.