The 32-year-old forward is spending his first full preseason with the Sounders after deciding to skip the U.S. national team’s winter camp.
January is one of the few tranquil periods on the Major League Soccer calendar, at least for established players. There’s the league combine and the SuperDraft, but the early days of training camp are little more than the rubbing of eyes after a too-short nap.
For Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, the first month of the year has been far crazier.
During his seven years in the English Premier League, January represented the beginning of the push, when teams began taking a hard look at the league standings. Either that, or it represented U.S. men’s national team winter camp, a chance for younger players to make their case against the standby vets.
Dempsey has yet to go through a full preseason with the Sounders — he has yet to take a break, really. He went on loan with English club Fulham in 2014 after his first half-season and joined the national-team camp last winter.
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This year, though, at age 32 and with years of continuous action piling up, Dempsey finally allowed himself a breather.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann texted Dempsey to let him know that a number of older players were being held out of January camp and left it up to his former captain.
“I thought it was best to build my body for the year to do it here,” Dempsey said Wednesday at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
What missing January camp means for Dempsey’s national-team future —– Klinsmann has said Dempsey is still in his plans and that he’s making decisions with an eye toward the 2018 World Cup — remains to be seen.
But for the Sounders, the fallout is likely to be positive.
The impact of Dempsey’s decision probably won’t be felt in March — when the season kicks off — or even late July, when even the fittest legs start to feel leaden. The Sounders hope a legitimate layoff followed by a slow-developing preseason will allow Dempsey to save some gas in the tank for the playoffs.
Dempsey acknowledged he was fatigued in the later months of the past two seasons. In 2014, the Fulham loan was followed by that summer’s World Cup — and all the physical and mental strain that comes with it. He shouldered most of the national team’s attacking burden at the 2015 Gold Cup, the tournament’s top scorer who nevertheless failed to prevent a fourth-place finish.
“For himself and his body,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said, “with the injuries that he had last year, to make sure he’s solid from that, it just made sense to keep him under the same rhythm and routine he has here.”
Schmid has often touched on the value of the preseason, not only for building on-field chemistry but for fostering it in the locker room. Two weeks in the hills outside Tucson, Ariz., tends to boost morale.
Dempsey isn’t the only Sounders player unaccustomed to the rhythm of MLS training camp, his first full version since the mid-2000s with New England.
Summer signings Erik Friberg, Nelson Valdez and Andreas Ivanschitz also were with the team from the beginning of camp last weekend. Osvaldo Alonso said he’s 100 percent healthy after having to undergo preseason surgery last year, and nothing ever came of English-tabloid rumors that Obafemi Martins was interested in an offseason loan.
“It helps having Clint, it helps having Friberg, it helps having Valdez from the beginning and Ivanschitz from the beginning,” Schmid said. “It’s all going to help.”
Alonso visits native Cuba
Alonso spent part of the offseason visiting his native Cuba for the first time since defecting nearly a decade ago, having finally been approved for a travel visa as relations between his homeland and the U.S. continue to thaw.
The 30-year-old reflected Wednesday on his “amazing” journey home, which included a visit to his hometown of San Cristobal, a day trip to the coast and plenty of catching up.
“Everything is the same,” Alonso said. “All the people were there, hanging out and talking. After almost nine years, to come back and see them was great for me.”
Not every player who has been training at Starfire the past few days will board the flight to the Tucson portion of Sounders preseason Thursday. But Schmid said they plan to take a large contingent — at least enough to fill two squads — in preparation for the friendlies against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Feb. 3 and the Portland Timbers three days later.
“The Arizona phase is about continuing our fitness, but it’s also now time to work on tactics,” Schmid said. “I wanted them to play and work hard here to get some fitness stuff done. Conceptually, we talked about a few ideas, but (Arizona) is really to work on our tactics and how we want to play.”
The Sounders don’t train again in the Northwest until at least Feb. 19, on the other side of training camp at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California.