With a healthy Obafemi Martins, the Sounders FC training pitch looks a lot more like a pickup game at a public park these days.
Martins, who was out with a hamstring injury until Sunday’s game against Portland, plays with the kind of freedom that is often lost in the X’s and O’s of professional sports. His coach marvels at the trait while opponents struggle with it.
And it’s what makes Martins such a soccer soul mate for teammate Clint Dempsey.
“Them together is almost not even fair,” said Sounders defender Jalil Anibaba. “Oba’s speed and his technique and his power is hard to defend, and then Clint’s illusion and deception is just very difficult.”
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Opponents think so, too. The Portland Timbers held Seattle scoreless through one half Sunday, making it difficult for the Sounders to maintain any offensive flow. Seattle managed five shot attempts in the first 45 minutes.
Then, six minutes into the second half, Martins subbed in for Seattle for the first time since mid-June.
His fresh legs — and newly healed hamstring — were a nightmare for Portland, and helped the Sounders push through to a 2-0 win. They had 13 shots in the second half.
“When it was just Dempsey coming back in the midfield, we could track him,” said Timbers midfielder Will Johnson. “Once they brought in Martins and there were two of them floating back in there, we were outnumbered and they were able to get some combinations off.”
The relationship between Dempsey and Martins is a special one. As both players have been in and out of the country and Sounders uniforms this summer, it’s something Sounders fans have missed.
The 51st minute Sunday was a long-awaited moment.
“Before the game, I told him to save his strength … because I don’t want him to get too tired,” Martins said. “I’m going to be finding him to give him the ball.”
While Dempsey’s goal Sunday was assisted by Pineda, not Martins, the flow of the offense clearly picked up in the second half when Martins came in. With two formidable strikers attacking, the Timbers had much less room to make mistakes.
Dempsey and Martins’ smoothness with each other happens without words and without much warning. They “understand the game” in the same way, according to Dempsey.
That kind of creativity can be frowned upon by coaches preaching a system or structure. But Sounders coach Sigi Schmid just sits back and watches the beauty unfold.
“It’s sort of like going to the park with your best friend,” he said of the tandem. “Sometimes as their coach, you want to say, ‘That’s too tight. We want to open it up.’ But they’re able to pull it off, so you let them do it.”
Ashley Scoby: email@example.com