Just four games into the season and already Seattle Sounders FC has trotted out three different formations. Opening Day against Sporting Kansas City it was a 4-4-2. Against Toronto FC it was a 4-2-3-1 that included Clint Dempsey in his only start. During Dempsey’s suspension against Montreal and Columbus the club played a 4-3-3. Against the Portland Timbers on Saturday (12 p.m. PT on NBCSN/97.3FM) Dempsey will be back from suspension and U.S. National Team duty.
He is healthy and fit, but there is a simple question yet to be answered: How does Dempsey fit in the 2014 side?
Head Coach Sigi Schmid gave no indication as to whether the successes of the three-man midfield means that it will be back on Saturday. “We’ll see how all that fits back together,” Schmid told the media after Tuesday’s training session.
Seattle’s version of the 4-3-3 uses a central triangle (that’s typical), with one man at the point (fairly typical), but diverges from most clubs that use this shape in that the player that occupies that top space shifts based on whether Sounders FC is in attack or defense.
That would have to change if Dempsey is inserted centrally in that band of three.
Osvaldo Alonso would obviously sit behind, but in the attack Dempsey needs to be higher than how Gonzalo Pineda plays. In defense, Dempsey is unlikely to be the defensive player that Micheal Azira and Andy Rose were when they started.
That would seem to indicate a shift back to the 4-2-3-1 where the wide midfielder would offer defensive support closer to their own goal. This is most similar to how Dempsey slots into the United States squad, where he is a creative force and a scoring threat taking a little bit of the modern No. 10 and the old trequartista into the band of three.
Both Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper showed that they can put in the defensive work while also creating scoring opportunities while in a three-forward set. They could likely do the same in the five-man midfield.
But there is also an alternate path that Schmid could choose. He could stick with that 4-3-3, and instead of having Dempsey in the middle, Schmid can put him wide and left. It is a spot most similar to where he worked with Fulham back when he served the world notice that an American could dominate in the Premier League. The central band provides cover while the forwards act as harriers, disturbing the preferred passes of the opposition.
When Dempsey is out here he is primarily a scorer who cuts in from the wide space to shoot at angles. He also has the options to slip the ball into the central forward, back to a run by a central midfielder or switch to the far post.
If Schmid decides to start Dempsey after his short week of training with the USA, there will be options as to how to use the talented attacker. Schmid likely already knows what he will do, but he’s also not tipping his hand – not that he would normally, but certainly not with Portland being the opponent.