Dempsey catalyst in redefining Sounders FC’s shape

The role flexibility offered by Seattle’s latest Designated Player is familiar and yet quite different due to the players surrounding him. His use of space will challenge description and help unlock a more fluid attack.

Sigi Schmid’s 4-4-2 formation with Seattle Sounders FC has gone through series of tweaks and adjustments over the past four and a half seasons. The coach searched for ways to unlock the unique talents of his best players like Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins in the attack. At times it was similar to the Guillermo Barros-Schelotto powered Columbus Crew lineup. With the LA Galaxy the shape changed most dramatically when Alexi Lalas was slotted as a free roaming defender supported by a three man backline.

“I’ve always been a coach that believes that the way you play is based around the personnel. I’ve never been a coach that says, ‘This is the only way you’re going to play 4-4-2, it’s a strict formation like this.’ If you have different personnel,” Schmid told the media on Tuesday, “you’ve got to adjust how you play to your personnel and take advantage of their strengths and try to use their strengths to the best of the ability the team.”

Clint Dempsey is the latest to allow Schmid to explore individual strengths. With Tottenham Hotspur last season the American national played as a solo forward, a withdrawn forward (second striker), a left wing, left mid, central attacking midfielder, right wing and right mid. He scored goals from each of those roles.

The lineup will adjust to take advantage of Dempsey’s abilities – scoring with his head, quality short passing, accurate long balls and the ability to cut in and threaten goal from distance. Officially listed as a midfielder, Dempsey and the versatile squad around him will eventually defy simple nomenclature.

Early on, the formation will probably look like a diamond 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2 with Dempsey in the middle. His role will both be as a creator and a scorer. His history of racking up decent assist numbers is often overlooked for the highlight-reel goals.

At moments he will interchange with a squad that has role flexibility in attack, as well.

Johnson’s penchant with the United States to slot as a winger at times has produced goals for the Red, White and Blue. Martins is dropping back into the midfield and working as a playmaking forward. In that role he just earned his first two-assist game on July 28. Once upon a time Lamar Neagle was a wide midfielder, but his breakout season is as a forward. Brad Evans is a multi-tool player capable of greatness from many places on the field.

Fluidity will take time to emerge. Schmid’s history is of abandoning structure as practice time increases awareness between players. The ease of definition should disappear. Dempsey will be a mid, and a forward. He will play on the left and in the center.

Those deployed in the starting XI along with him will also use multiple spaces. Johnson will be a high forward, left wing and right wing. Martins will drop back or ride high. Rosales can slot on the right, up top or in the middle. Neagle is a forward and an either side wide mid.

While the spaces used by Dempsey will look familiar to Sounders FC fans, the rest of the shape will be new. Per ESPNFC.com Dempsey with Tottenham looked a lot like Montero with Seattle.

He’s a long-range goalscoring wizard, has great vision and can slip a pass into the box as well as any “forward” in American history. The primary difference is going to be the players around Dempsey.

Two players ahead of him will be rather common. How the other midfielders cover for a man that slips forward quite often will be the tell-tale sign of shape. But all will be in multiple spaces throughout a match.

Don’t worry about the nomenclature. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride as it develops. Because there will be a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 in a diamond, a 4-1-3-2 and the all-new 4-4-Dempsey-1. It will depend on who else is out there. Each match will play a bit differently due to injury, fatigue and call up.

“We have options. He’s played behind a forward, he’s played up front, he’s played wide left. He’s played different places as well,” Schmid said about Dempsey. But it could have been Johnson, or Evans or Neagle. Things are going to get fast and fluid. Expect many plays of the week.

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