The club's highest-paid and highest-profile player has been out since late August while undergoing evaluations on an irregular heartbeat.
Projections for the rest of this Sounders season have unfolded in two distinct scenarios: With Clint Dempsey and without.
With their highest-paid and highest-profile player, Seattle is probably a playoff team and maybe even a dark horse to make a deep run. Without him, well, the outlook is much more modest.
The darker timeline is now a reality. Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey confirmed on Tuesday morning that Dempsey will not play again this season.
Dempsey has been out since August while undergoing evaluations on an irregular heartbeat. The 33-year-old returned to practice two weeks ago, having undergone an unspecified procedure in the meantime.
But though Lagerwey said at the time that the Sounders were “cautiously optimistic” that Dempsey could play again in 2016, his absence from training throughout last week indicated otherwise and on Tuesday morning, the general manager made it official.
“We simply haven’t got to a point where we were comfortable that there was a realistic chance,” Lagerwey said. “As we said in the first round of comments, we are not comfortable putting any kind of pressure on this. His return to play is not important relative to his health, both short- and long-term. We feel by ruling him out today, it puts us in the best position to get him back hopefully for the 2017 season.”
Dempsey has been dealing with related health concerns throughout the 2016 season, according to club sources. The team had been closely monitoring the issue for what Lagerwey estimated was roughly a two-month period before the issue came to a head following the Aug. 21 home win over Portland.
“One of those tests came back with some data that showed an irregularity, and we then took him out,” Lagerwey said. “…. It was something that we had found over the course of playing for us. We had been tracking and monitoring him for some time. It popped up, and it’s something we have to take care of. We can’t take any risks with something as serious as this.”
Dempsey’s continued absence also has implications on the U.S. national team ahead of the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Lagerwey said that U.S. Soccer has been involved throughout this process and is “philosophically on the same page” regarding Dempsey’s status for the remainder of 2016.
The USMNT hosts Mexico on Nov. 11 in Columbus before traveling to Costa Rica four days later. Qualifying then resumes at the end of next March.
“I can’t speak for (U.S. Soccer), but he’s not healthy,” Lagerwey said. “We have to get him healthy before he gets medically cleared to play. He’s not medically cleared to play, so therefore he’s not going to play for anybody, not us and not them.”
The news didn’t exactly come as a surprise inside the Sounders locker room.
“The players are friends with Clint,” interim coach Brian Schmetzer said. “They probably know more than what I know. I don’t think the messaging was that big of a shock to anybody.”
Seattle (11-13-5) is 2-1-2 since Dempsey was initially ruled out following the Portland game. It is currently three points out of the playoff spots but with two matches in hand over the sixth-place Timbers – one of which is a home match against basement-dwelling Chicago on Wednesday night.
Coming off a signature win inspired by Rookie of the Year candidate Jordan Morris, there are reasons for quiet optimism within the ranks even without Dempsey.
“We miss him,” Schmetzer said. “But we’ve had some good results, starting with the one down in L.A. It’s a strong group. I hate sounding like a broken record, but their mindset is good. … The mindset of the group is strong. Clint is a big factor, but they will persevere.”
Still, Tuesday’s announcement will resonate.
Dempsey is under contract through the end of next season. In an interview shortly before the forward’s leave of absence, Lagerwey was adamant that Dempsey remained central to the team’s plans for the future. With Nelson Valdez widely expected to be on the way out this offseason, Seattle is already likely to have to fill a Designated Player slot.
Schmetzer calls Dempsey the “best field player this country has ever produced.” He leaves a void. Though the Sounders have begun to carve out a new identity in his stead, they still haven’t approached the attacking heights of the first few days of Schmetzer’s tenure, Dempsey and new signing Nicolas Lodeiro playing off each other with Morris running in behind.
“We’re a big enough club, a smart enough club to make sure there’s a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” Schmetzer said.
“How do you replace him? It’s tough.”