Dempsey is undeniably the focal point of the Sounders. It was evident in the way the Sounders attacked and the way Club America attacked them in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw in the opener of the Champions League quarterfinals.
The Sounders didn’t have the luxury of easing into their new season. Rather, they dived headlong, ready or not, straight into the fire of a Champions League quarterfinal against powerhouse Club America.
It was their modified version of the Daytona 500, a season opener with instant ramifications, despite the fact one team was already in midseason fitness, the other still finding its legs. And after a hard-earned 2-2 draw at CenturyLink in the first leg of their two-match series on Tuesday, a truth was already revealed.
More than ever, this is Clint Dempsey’s team.
That is a conclusion that speaks to more than the two goals Dempsey scored — a wondrous strike off a free kick in the 44th minute, and a nifty header in the 52nd. Each one was followed by a defensive letdown that led to equalizers by Club America but showed an energy and engagement to Dempsey’s game that bodes well.
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Naturally, there are kinks to be worked out, roles to be solidified. The personality of this Sounders team will reveal itself slowly over the course of their unforgiving and seemingly endless season.
But with Obafemi Martins abruptly gone and rookie Jordan Morris still a work in progress, Dempsey is undeniably the focal point of the Sounders. You could see that almost instantly both in the way the Sounders attacked, and in the way Club America attacked them.
“I think he got fouled seven or eight times, and the only time they got a yellow card for that was at the end of the game,’’ Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “He was obviously a target, a guy they were going after. There’s got to be more protection and awareness from the officials in that regard.”
Morris, who made his first appearance at CenturyLink after his much-heralded signing as a homegrown player of considerable acclaim, nearly scored off a header in the early minutes of the game. Much will be expected of Morris as he slots straight into Martins’ spot on the right wing, and he has already shown a knack for rising up in big moments. But as Schmid pointed out, there are elements of growth that can come only with experience.
Eventually, Morris will be asked to take some of the scoring obligation off Dempsey. But for now, the role is reversed. While Morris deals with the pressure of meeting expectations, never easy under a hometown spotlight, Dempsey seemed entirely comfortable to be the center of Seattle’s offense and take the heat off Morris.
Presumably invigorated by his first semblance of an offseason, however brief, since coming over from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, Dempsey asserted himself with midseason precision. He is coming off a year in which he scored just 10 MLS goals, disrupted by a six-match suspension, a hamstring injury, and intermittent departures to join the national team.
That’s not to say Dempsey will consciously and conspicuously assume a larger leadership role this year. That’s not his style, nor the Sounders’.
“I think Clint’s leadership is by how he performs on the field and what he gives the team; his ability to hold on to the ball and connect passes for us and being able to put his foot on the ball and slow it down for us at the right time,’’ Schmid said. “And be in there when the opportunity presents itself to score goals.
“That’s the way he leads. Everyone leads in his own way, but we’re not a big team with a bunch of rah-rah talkers in there. That’s not what we’re all about, but guys are like, ‘OK, I’m going to get on with it, I’m going to take care of business.’ ”
Considering the differing levels of fitness — Club America is already eight games into its regular season — Schmid was extremely pleased with the effort of the Sounders, who finish this series next week as a decided underdog in Mexico City.
But equal focus is on the rapidly approaching MLS season, which begins March 6 at home against Sporting Kansas City. The Sounders are trying to erase the disappointments of last year — a loss to the Portland Timbers in the U.S. Open Cup followed by the deeper cut of watching the Timbers win the MLS Cup after Seattle’s ouster via a penalty shootout against Dallas.
They have shaken up the lineup with the departures of Martins, Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda, and unveiled a new 4-3-3 formation. The 21-year-old Morris is being unleashed, and last year’s midseason acquisitions Erik Friberg, Nelson Valdez and Andreas Ivanschitz will be with them from the start, which should be a boon.
But at the center of it all, now more than ever, is Dempsey. And on Tuesday, he looked like right at home.