Certainly the Sounders would benefit if Dempsey played against Colorado, but they have shown the ability not to depend on their star in reaching and advancing in MLS playoffs.
They call it the “Ewing Theory,” and its premise is frighteningly valid. Former ESPN columnist Bill Simmons first popularized the term when he explained how the Knicks soared to the 1999 NBA Finals as an 8 seed after their star, Patrick Ewing, succumbed to injury in the playoffs.
Since then, Ewing Theory examples have sprouted up consistently.
There was the Tennessee football team, which failed to beat Florida all four years Peyton Manning was behind center, then won the national title the season after he graduated. There were the 2001-02 Raptors, who were 31-39 when Vince Carter went down with a season-ending injury, then won 11 of their final 12 games to sneak into the playoffs. And, perhaps most famously, there were the 2001 Mariners, who won a record 116 games after parting ways with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson.
Granted, there are countless other examples in which the departure of a star torpedoed a team’s chances, but you can’t ignore the aforementioned evidence.
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Which brings us to the Sounders.
A couple of months ago, Seattle learned that forward Clint Dempsey — one of the greatest American soccer players in history — would miss the remainder of the season due to an irregular heartbeat. The Sounders were 9-12-3 following Dempsey’s last game and on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since joining Major League Soccer in 2009.
But with an inspired surge, the Sounders went 5-2-3 over their final 10 regular-season games to not only make the postseason, but nab the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. More impressively they steamrolled their first two opponents during this playoff run, which included a three-goal barrage against Dallas in an eight-minute span.
So is the Ewing Theory in full effect? Could it be possible Dempsey’s absence has actually helped this team?
Well, it might not be that simple.
“First and foremost, if he (Dempsey) is here, we’re the favorites to win the MLS Cup,” said Sounders defender and captain Brad Evans, whose team hosts the Colorado Rapids in the first of two Western Conference finals games Tuesday night. “If we lost him and didn’t gain Nico (Lodeiro), then things are completely different and we’re not sitting here playing.”
Yes, the addition of midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro — the designated player from Uruguay — was the rocket-fueled boost the Sounders had been waiting on all year. Seattle is 10-3-4 since his arrival, which more than justifies his Newcomer of the Year honor.
In fact, if you look at the four games Lodeiro and Dempsey played together, you’ll notice that Seattle went 3-0-1 while outscoring opponents 9-4. So perhaps Evans is right in that his team would be the odds-on favorite with Dempsey.
But Evans also noted how when a team loses a top-tier player, “it puts the onus on 5, 6, 7 guys to lift their games.” And so far the rank and file has been doing just that.
Another major change that occurred before Dempsey’s season ended was Brian Schmetzer replacing Sigi Schmid as the Sounders’ head coach. Last week, Schmetzer was asked what kind of effect Dempsey’s absence has had on the locker room, and how the team has managed to ward off any devastating effects.
The first thing Schmetzer said was that losing Dempsey was, in fact, devastating, and that the Sounders played poorly the game after they got the news.
“But credit to the rest of the team, because this is a team sport, they were able to get their minds wrapped around it and said ‘OK, what do we have to do now?’ ” Schmetzer said. “I think that’s kind of been the spirit of this group through any sort of adversity.”
There isn’t sufficient evidence that this team is better off without Dempsey. Him not being on the field hasn’t changed the formation, and, as mentioned earlier, he and Lodeiro were dynamic in their brief stretch together.
What has been shown, however, is that Seattle can transition smoothly into the post-Dempsey era whenever that may be. The Sounders may benefit from Dempsey’s presence, but they certainly don’t depend on him.