Gaudy numbers quickly stand out when it comes to Clint Dempsey.
First was a $5 million salary, the highest in MLS this season upon his headline-grabbing signing with Sounders FC in August.
But since then, a less flattering figure has come to the forefront: 561 minutes over eight games without a goal or assist. The drought only looks worse, of course, when coupled with the team’s four-game losing streak and even longer winless streak.
Disappointing as Dempsey’s start may be, it has actually kept with the norm for high-profile midseason additions in MLS. Many others, including David Beckham and Thierry Henry, have had to overcome early struggles before going on to great success.
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In Dempsey’s case, the obstacles the past three months have included multiple injuries, a national team-call-up, inconsistency around him, and also getting fouled at the highest rate in the league.
“It’s difficult to integrate into a team,” said midfielder Brad Evans. “It doesn’t matter how good you are or where you’re at. You come off an offseason and you’re expected to come in and score a hat trick every game. That’s what everyone expected.”
Dempsey has called his time with the Sounders “stop-start.”
Upon arrival, the Sounders went on a 3-1 run with their new addition in the lineup, kickstarting a rise to the best record in MLS. On the field, Dempsey was incredibly active, taking 17 shots in that span, even if none went in.
The incorporation was stunted, however, when Dempsey, the U.S. national team captain, was called in for World Cup qualifying. A two-game absence didn’t seem like a big deal, but then injuries hit.
Dempsey strained his hamstring, perhaps due to overuse without a proper preseason, which forced him to miss three games. Minutes after his return to the starting lineup, a hard fall in a rivalry game against Portland sprained his left shoulder.
Coach Sigi Schmid stood up for his star after the Timbers loss, noting how often Dempsey has been tackled. The 29-year-old has already suffered 21 fouls, one every 27 minutes, the highest rate among active players.
“That crap has got to stop,” Schmid said. “The referees have got to protect him, and they don’t.”
Playing through the pain, which Dempsey has done the past two games, hasn’t been easy.
“I’m not the fastest on the field, so I use my strength to get into good positions and body players and get space for myself,” he said after last week’s 2-0 loss in Dallas. “Not being able to use my left arm is impacting that.”
Add in the usual difficulties in a transition — e.g. lack of offseason or preseason, having to uproot a family — and it’s no wonder other designated players have also struggled when signed midway through the season.
Beckham went from no goals and two assists for the Galaxy in 2007, plus knee and ankle injuries, to five goals and 10 assists the next year. Henry went from two goals (and a knee injury) in his first season in New York to 14 goals the following year.
The same trend goes for others like Tim Cahill (one goal in 2012 to 11 goals this season) or, more locally, Alvaro Fernandez with Seattle (two goals in 2010 to nine goals in 2011).
One DP who broke the mold was Robbie Keane, who helped lead L.A. to an MLS Cup in his first season.
That future is still in play for Dempsey, and the playoff-bound Sounders remain encouraged amid the personal and team-wide struggles.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part owner. “The integration is going to take time — it just is — but I think he gets better each game.”
• Eddie Johnson returned to practice Friday after being held out of the team’s previous session Wednesday by Schmid for undisclosed reasons. Schmid said it was a “one-day thing” that has since been resolved.
“It’s like families,” the coach added. “Families, sometimes you disagree and then you move on.”
Johnson also indicated his he moved past the issue: “I felt like after that training session, everything that’s been going on, it’s more me frustrated with myself. … It was just something where the best thing for me was to take the day off.”