Healthy, productive Dempsey causing the right kind of problem for Seattle

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

"Deuce" is back and producing at an elite level, something few saw coming during the offseason. 

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SEATTLE – For most of this year, any discussion of Clint Dempsey’s future has been limited to the short term.

When the Seattle Sounders broke preseason camp back in January, Dempsey hadn’t played in a competitive match in five months. Sidelined by an irregular heartbeat detected last August, he underwent a pair of procedures to address the issue, the first of which didn’t take.

With Dempsey turning 34 in March, it was fair to wonder if he would so much as suit up for another MLS match or if he’d be better off calling it quits.

Even once he did return, he was evaluated on a week-to-week basis – even the most optimistic dared only go month-to-month.

Now, though, with the Sounders star and longtime U.S. international playing as inspired as he has in years, the scope is beginning to widen.

For U.S. men’s national team fans, the prospect is exhilarating. Dempsey is currently tied with Landon Donovan as the national team’s all-time leading scorer, and it feels like only a matter of time until that record is the Texan’s alone. Having proven himself a willing and able supersub during this summer’s Gold Cup, Dempsey is a favorite to make what would be a fourth World Cup roster for Russia 2018.

For the Sounders, though, the issue of a rejuvenated Dempsey is considerably more complicated.

The 34-year-old’s contract with Seattle runs only through this season, with a team option for 2018. Per the MLS Players’ Union’s bi-annual salary dump, Dempsey is due $3.89 million in guaranteed compensation this year. Even if those numbers are notoriously unreliable, they at least provide a general idea of each team’s wage structure.

What made Clint Dempsey the greatest goal scorer this country has ever produced? It’s the attitude, the feistiness, the Clint face. That’s what’s made him great.

- Brian Schmetzer

While not addressing specifics, a team source confirmed that Dempsey’s team option is within the same “ballpark” of what he is making now – which would almost certainly mean occupying a Designated Player spot, which could lead to some very tough choices within the Sounders front office.

Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Osvaldo Alonso currently fill the team’s three Designated Player roster slots, and while Alonso has been and can be bought down below that threshold with Targeted Allocation Money, Seattle has been mum on whether Dempsey is a tenable option going forward on his current salary.

Dempsey is the team’s leading scorer this campaign with 11 goals plus three assists in 21 appearances. His chemistry with Lodeiro, though, has often been lacking, and the Uruguayan is locked into a long-term deal.

“If we have lots of players playing well, and the team is playing well, those are good complications for a general manager to have,” Seattle general manager  Garth Lagerwey said, refusing further comment on ongoing contract negotiations.

Though it is a very different question, of course, as to whether Dempsey would accept a steep pay cut, some around the forward have been pleasantly surprised by how readily he has accepted a slightly diminished role on the field.

That acceptance has been most evident with the U.S., where head coach Bruce Arena has experimented with Dempsey coming off the bench as an impact substitute. But the Sounders, too, have kept a close tab on his minutes, looking for occasions like the recent midweek match in Vancouver to give him a break.

“Ever since that heart condition, I’ve noticed a subtle change in Clint,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “What made Clint Dempsey the greatest goal scorer this country has ever produced? It’s the attitude, the feistiness, the Clint face. That’s what’s made him great. And now, he still has that within him, but he also has the ability to reflect on what’s happened to him over the last year. I think that makes him really appreciate what he has.”

Dempsey hasn’t exactly embraced the changes – “I never said he was completely open to scaling it back,” Schmetzer clarified – and he still chafes at authority from time to time.

“He wants to play in every minute of every game,” Schmetzer said. “Again, that’s the drive that he always has within him. But I don’t think he’s going to blow up at me, because I think he’s bought into the whole team concept. He absolutely wants to play every minute of every game.

“But he’s now figuring out that, hey, you know what, maybe I can’t do that anymore.”

USA TODAY Sports-Jaime Valdez

USA TODAY Sports-Jaime Valdez

The Sounders have collaborated closely with U.S. Soccer on Dempsey’s fitness. Seattle boasts one of the most well-respected sports science departments in MLS, and it has used that to its advantage when it comes to its highest-profile star.

Sounders performance and sports science director Dave Tenney pores over the analytics daily, keeping close tabs on Dempsey’s output, scaling his work load up or down depending on the week.

The result has been a Dempsey that has outstripped even the most optimistic projections heading into this year. It has begun to beg the obvious question of how long he might be able to keep going from here. And, whether the Sounders like it or not, where he might be doing it.

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