Dempsey's return tasks Seattle with balancing its star-studded arsenal
It was not the ideal start for the defending champion Seattle Sounders.
A 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo probably wasn’t what fans in the Pacific Northwest envisioned to start the season.
But the first game of the season rarely defines what a team will look like the rest of the year, and while the result was less than ideal, the return of Clint Dempsey was a positive nugget wrapped inside an otherwise unfavorable evening. That he scored a goal in his first game since last August was a bonus.
Dempsey’s reintegration into the side will be the storyline to follow all season in Seattle.
What will Dempsey mean to this team? Will he be the same Dempsey we saw before the health issues? More importantly, how well will he assimilate into a team that saw Nicolas Lodeiro play such a key role late last season?
We saw a glimpse last season.
Lodeiro’s first game was July 31. He and Dempsey would play just four games together before an irregular heartbeat sidelined Dempsey. The results were more than encouraging. Dempsey scored five times in that window, including a hat trick against Orlando City. Lodeiro added another goal. It looked like the beginnings of a lethal partnership before Dempsey’s health issues shelved that promise.
It wasn’t exactly that level of perfection on Saturday night.
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) March 5, 2017
Both Dempsey and Lodeiro struggled to put their mark on the game, especially in the first half, but we got a glimpse of what Seattle will do with the Dempsey-Lodeiro-Jordan Morris trifecta all available. Lodeiro started on the left and pinched into the middle with a green light to find the ball and dictate the game. Dempsey, meanwhile, was back in the free-floating role we have seen often during his time with the Sounders. He lingered near the box and looked to impact the game from underneath Morris’ high positioning but couldn’t really unlock the game there. At times, Dempsey dropped deep into midfield or floated right to try to find the ball as Seattle fought out of its shellshock from Houston’s pace and pressure. It’s not exactly where Brian Schmetzer will want to see Dempsey getting on the ball as the season goes on, and Dempsey’s passing chart showed some of those hiccups.
But it isn’t a reason to panic. Adapting to Dempsey’s style is not as simple as plug-and-play. It will take time for Dempsey’s movement to blend with Lodeiro. That Dempsey missed so much time before working back into the team weighs as heavily as anything we saw in those first four games together. It’s remarkable Dempsey started on Saturday. It will certainly take time for him to get back to full strength, both in fitness and in his feel for the game and the Sounders’ system.
As the season progresses and Seattle gets sharper, you have to expect the chemistry between those three will grow. Good players recognize good players, and the rewards will come. Dempsey will learn he can stay higher up the field and allow Lodeiro to drop and find the ball. Lodeiro will learn Dempsey’s strengths just as well as he did Morris last year, when he so consistently found the rookie’s runs in behind the defense. Dempsey will start to get on the ball near the top of the box, where he is one of the most dangerous players in the league.
For now, the best sign for Seattle is that Dempsey was in the starting lineup after the question marks lingered around the U.S. national team star for so long. It’s big news, too, for Bruce Arena and U.S. fans, who can now hope to see Dempsey involved when the Americans play two vital World Cup qualifiers later this month.
Where Dempsey fits in that lineup is still a question, too. Will he play behind a Jozy Altidore-Bobby Wood tandem? Can he be the missing link to a U.S. lineup that is still searching for a playmaker?
The answers weren’t all there on the opening weekend of MLS season, but we shouldn’t expect them to be.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.