TUKWILA – At the forefront of Sounders FC’s exciting road comebacks the past two weeks has been one of the pillars of American soccer — superstar Clint Dempsey, who has dazzled with five of his league-leading six goals in thrilling games in Portland and Dallas.
“He’s just on a different level than everybody else right now,” said forward Chad Barrett.
Indeed, any praise sent Dempsey’s way, like back-to-back MLS player of the week honors, is more than deserved. But nestled quietly in Seattle’s climb up the Western Conference standings have been vital contributions from a deeper and stronger bench as compared to 2013.
That is by no accident, either.
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Finding top-end attacking talent was never going to be an offseason priority for the Sounders with Dempsey and fellow designated player Obafemi Martins on the roster. Coming off the disappointment of last year, however, the front office set out to strengthen its core.
“I think we have that,” said Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. “We have players who certainly in their minds feel that they’re starters or right around there, so when they’re on the bench, they’re a little bit unhappy. Sometimes that’s a little bit of extra motivation when the opportunity comes for them to step onto the field.”
Those opportunities haven’t gone wasted. Six of Seattle’s 12 goals, which rank second-best in MLS, have come in the final 30 minutes of the game, when nearly all non-injury-related substitutions are made. Three of those goals have come in the 85th minute or later to change the result in the Sounders’ favor.
Moreover, the offensive burst hasn’t come at the cost of defense, with just one goal allowed all year in the final 30 minutes.
Barrett has played a key role in providing that punch off the bench. In just 41 minutes, split over three substitute appearances, the veteran forward has scored a stoppage-time winner (Week 1 against defending champion Sporting Kansas City) and added a game-winning assist (Saturday at league-leading FC Dallas).
“I’m going to do whatever’s asked of me,” said Barrett, a 10-year veteran. “Obviously I don’t want to be coming off the bench … but competing with these guys each and every day makes me a better player, and I know that.”
For Schmid, lineup selections haven’t been easy, a good problem for a coach. He dropped Lamar Neagle to the bench before a Week 5 rivalry game against the Timbers, and the Federal Way native responded by helping spark a two-goal comeback to earn his place back in the lineup.
Another player who has followed up a reduced role with production has been midfielder Marco Pappa, one of the team’s more exciting offseason additions.
The start of the year was a struggle for the Guatemalan midfielder, as he played a damaging role in both goals allowed in a Week 2 loss to Toronto, a performance that dropped him from the lineup. The two-time MLS All-Star has responded well the past two weeks, though, and he played significant roles in the buildup to both second-half goals in Saturday’s comeback win in Dallas.
Pappa said the transition back into the league, after not playing much for seven months with Holland’s Heerenveen, was difficult at first, “but I’m a positive guy … and I’m looking forward to start doing better things for the team.”
Consider him another weapon in what has quickly become an arsenal of valuable contributors behind the team’s stars.
“It’s a reflection of their characters,” Schmid said of the team’s key reserves. “They’re going to be disappointed when they’re on the bench, but they’re not going to hang their heads. They’re going to come in and fight for the team and fight for their spot.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184
On Twitter @joshuamayers