PORTLAND — It seemed almost preordained, on that electric August day when the Sounders introduced Clint Dempsey to a delirious crowd at CenturyLink Field.
He was to be the spark, the impetus, the missing link the Sounders had always needed to push them over the top. The soccer world was abuzz with the coup that Seattle management had pulled off in landing one of the sport’s top players. It was a stealth pursuit, the element of surprise just adding that much more pizzazz to the unveiling.
The Sounders, it seemed, were headed for new heights, with Dempsey leading the way.
“We have been consistent in our message to the fans that we will spare no expense to win trophies,’’ majority owner Joe Roth declared that night, as Dempsey took the field in jeans, dramatically removing his sweatshirt to reveal the Sounders’ jersey underneath.
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The trophies still might come, but not this year. The Sounders’ season ended meekly at Jeld-Wen Field, where the Timbers Army began partying in earnest after two first-half goals neutered Seattle’s comeback hopes.
It threatened to become downright embarrassing when the Timbers put another shot past Michael Gspurning two minutes into the second half. Much like the Oregon Ducks, whose loss to Stanford was being simultaneously mourned in these parts amidst the chanting and singing at Jeld-Wen, the Sounders at least made it slightly interesting with two late scores.
In the end, however, they fell 3-2 in this one and 5-3 in aggregate, bringing to a crashing halt a season that once overflowed with promise.
So now the Sounders are left to ponder all sorts of unpleasant questions, not the least of which is why the addition of a world-class player like Dempsey never translated into the bounties of playoff success.
In fact, after an initial surge, the Sounders hit a staggering slump that they never shook, despite an illusory play-in victory over Colorado that marks their one and only victory since Sept. 13.
The squandering of talent may well cost Sigi Schmid, Seattle’s coach since its MLS inception, his job.
“I don’t want to walk away. I know there’s probably people out there that would like me to walk away,’’ Schmid said afterward.
At the least, it will induce much soul-searching from a proud organization, and passionate fan base, that rightly demands more.
This collapse – and no other word describes the last two months of faltering play by Seattle, capped by Thursday’s defeat – is the sort that tends to lead to sweeping changes.
Dempsey, of course, is going nowhere, with three years still left on the Sounders’ $5 million commitment. The possibility for ultimate success is still very real, with the examples of David Beckham and Thierry Henry instructive in showing that initial struggles integrating into MLS can be conquered.
“Expectations is what everyone else had,’’ Dempsey said. “I just came in, worked hard, and what will be, will be. I’m always going to work hard. People can’t doubt my work ethic. It’s just been unfortunate with injuries and stuff like that, but next season I’ll find my rhythm. I’m not worried. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve scored goals. I’ve been successful on every team I’ve played for.”
Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller, among others, tried to warn us that it might not be all goals and roses for Dempsey. Lalas told me, on the eve of Dempsey’s triumphant home debut before the largest soccer crowd in Seattle history, “He’s brought a tremendous amount of energy and a positive message, but also a tremendous amount of pressure.”
Keller said back then, prophetically, “It wouldn’t surprise me if it took a little while for everything to settle down. If you look at moves like this historically, it’s been the second or third year they’ve come to fruition.”
Dempsey had to deal with a variety of injuries – hamstring, shoulder – and what seemed to be a league-wide “Hack-A-Clint” strategy of disrupting his game with fouls. Periodic callups to the U.S. National Team made it even more difficult for Dempsey to get his rhythm and flow.
Without a preseason, Dempsey battled to regain his fitness while also learning new teammates. Schmid had promised a fully fit Dempsey on Thursday, but he was still not able to deliver the transcendent play which has always seemed on the verge of being unveiled.
In fact, Dempsey finished his initial Sounders season with just one assist, and one goal, out of 46 shots – five of those coming Thursday. He had a chance for a goal in the 89th minute, but it went wide, symbolic of the near-misses and close calls that have marked his brief time in Seattle.
A failed experiment? It’s far too early to reach that conclusion, and foolish given Dempsey’s track record. Call it a stalled start.
“He came in with no preseason, trying to find his rhythm and trying to catch his game as well,’’ Schmid said. “With all the different changes, having to change from game to game, made it difficult. But he’ll have a much better season next year, and he’ll be the player we all know he is.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry