Clint Dempsey hadn’t played a minute this MLS season and some fans were already getting impatient.
Pressure began to mount, of course, amid Sounders FC’s disappointing end to 2013, a spell in which his heralded introduction to the team was hindered by injury and international call-ups. Criticism grew over the offseason during a fruitless two-month loan spell with English Premier League cellar-dweller Fulham, where Dempsey didn’t even play three of the final four games.
Upon his return to Seattle, just two days before the MLS opener, some were even wondering if Dempsey was on pace to have his role reduced with the U.S. national team ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
Coach Sigi Schmid quickly came to his star’s defense.
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“I think everybody should back off a little bit and not put so much pressure on him,” Schmid said on March 6.
“The expectations are he has to be a magic man every time he steps on the field. He doesn’t have to be a magic man every time he steps on the field; he has to be Clint Dempsey.”
Fast forward a couple weeks and early indications from Seattle’s first two games are that the Dempsey many expected to see is here. He has a goal and assist in 123 minutes for the Sounders, already matching his production from his 921 minutes in 2013.
Dempsey, dating to last year, has either a goal or assist in his past three regular-season games. Including the MLS playoffs, he has factored into a scoring play in four of his past six outings.
So is the pressure off?
“I don’t look at it like that,” he said after scoring Saturday against Toronto. “I keep the same mindset — going out, working hard and trying to get as many goals as possible. … So far I’m happy with the first two games in terms of getting a goal and an assist, but I have to keep pushing, and there is more to come.”
The production, though, will quiet the critics, even if Dempsey’s influence has stretched deeper in his orchestration of Seattle’s attack. As Schmid said, “People always look at numbers.”
Numbers, of course, were what had many frustrated with the loan to last-place Fulham. While Dempsey was getting over a few injuries and getting time in one of the world’s best leagues, many noticed his stats: no goals, no assists, no wins.
“When you’re in a team that’s losing and you’re in a losing trend, it’s hard to get out of that, even if you’re a quality player,” said Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson. “It’s just the mood of the team. So when he got there, that’s how it was going.
“You can see a change in his game now. He has more energy. He can have a bigger impact on the games here and he’s started off great for us. He feels comfortable and he feels like he’s going to lead the team.”
One aspect that has been particularly encouraging is Dempsey’s developing partnership with the team’s other high-priced star, forward Obafemi Martins. It was Martins who set up Dempsey’s goal against Toronto, and the two have been linking up regularly in games and practice.
Injuries and call-ups limited the pair to just 109 shared minutes last season. They have already been on the field together for 123 this year.
“It’s been fun to see,” Henderson said. “Good players find a way to get the ball to each other and break down defenses, and that’s what they both do well.
“You’re starting to see as the more they get used to each other, they’re starting to jell and look for each other. That’s going to be a really important combination, because both of them can change a game in a moment.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @joshuamayers.