The hardest of blows fell like a hammer on the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday. Despite initially making progress in his recovery from an irregular heartbeat diagnosed last month, Clint Dempsey will not be returning this season.
The news comes as a blow to the locker room after word spread that Dempsey’s return to practice earlier this month could augur a comeback before the end of the year. That was always a speculative hope, but there was at least reason to be optimistic.
Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said Tuesday he's hopeful Dempsey can return in 2017, but he and the the rest of the Sounders family are now hoping first that Dempsey returns to health, to say nothing of his playing status. Some things are more important than what happens between the chalk.
But the Sounders still need to find a way forward into the playoffs without him. And luckily that could prove to be a less daunting task than it might’ve seemed just a few weeks ago.
The Sounders will bounce off the mat on Wednesday for a midweek tussle with the Chicago Fire (7:30 p.m. PT; JoeTV/KIRO 97.3 FM/El Rey 1360AM) just 24 hours after news of Dempsey’s prolonged absence hit. It’s an important match for myriad reasons, notably because Seattle can draw level with Portland for the final playoff spot with a game still in hand with a victory.
And the fact that Chicago’s been in the Eastern Conference cellar for most of the last calendar year should give the Sounders some added belief.
Dempsey hasn’t played since Aug. 21, and there was no doubt some concern about his fitness in the event that he was cleared to play down the stretch. Even if fears of Dempsey’s irregular heartbeat were completely cleared beyond any lingering shadow of a doubt, Dempsey’s only been training lightly for the past two weeks after a nearly month-long layoff. Getting him back up to game speed with so little of the regular season left was always going to be a monumental task.
Now Dempsey will revert to the team’s sideline captain and emotional support system off the field. If the Sounders do end up closing the gap, they’ll have to do it without arguably their best player.
That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, of course, and the Sounders finally seem to be figuring out how to fully cope without Dempsey’s outsize influence on the field. Dempsey’s now missed each of the Sounders’ past five games, a stretch that began with a road draw in Houston, a 4-2 loss at Portland and another gritty point taken in San Jose. Since then Seattle is 2-0, including last weekend’s massive 4-2 win at the LA Galaxy that might’ve given the Sounders an inside track on a playoff spot.
The fundamental problem Seattle ran into with Dempsey on the bench was tactical in nature, at least initially. Once Nicolas Lodeiro joined, interim coach Brian Schmetzer arrayed Dempsey in the No. 10 hole underneath Jordan Morris and splayed Lodeiro wide right. This created a massive central headache for defenses, which had to deal with an exceedingly narrow Lodeiro overloading the middle.
Take a look at the Sounders’ positioning map in their 3-1 win over Orlando City on Aug. 7. Dempsey got a hat trick in this game and Seattle comfortably put in one of its most comprehensive attacking performances of the season.
Note how compressed everything is in the middle. Lodeiro (13) is obscuring Dempsey (2) underneath Morris (13), and all three basically swamped Orlando City’s double pivot of Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco. They had no chance faced with this onslaught. Nobody in the league is compact or disciplined enough to deal with this.
Without Dempsey, Lodeiro has been realigned to his more natural position underneath Morris - things are undeniably wider now - but this created another problem the Sounders haven’t yet solved. Who slots in at right mid? Schmetzer has alternated Cristian Roldan and Alvaro Fernandez there, and on Sunday’s Galaxy-Sounders broadcast on ESPN, commentator Taylor Twellman said Schmetzer told him Brad Evans could play there once he’s healthy.
Even with the uncertainty on the right, the Fire still have a lot to deal with defensively. Their defensive record would be second-worst in the far more challenging Western Conference, while the Sounders finally seem to be rounding into post-Dempsey attacking form with Lodeiro running the show under a white-hot Morris, who scored twice against the Galaxy.
In fact, Chicago’s back line struggled to such a degree in a 4-1 loss to NYCFC last weekend that first-year coach Veljko Paunovic subbed off two of his four defenders before the final whistle blew. He’s still struggling to find a consistent combination that works out of his clogged midfield, while forward Luis Solignac scored just his second goal last weekend in 762 minutes in Chicago this season.
As if the Sounders needed any reminders that this league brooks no overt favorites, the Timbers lost 3-1 to Western Conference cellar dwellers Houston last weekend. That loss wasn’t just a shock to the system for anyone who assumed last place means what it does in any other world leagues. It also opened the door for the Sounders’ playoff chances.
A win against Chicago – even without Dempsey - will go a long way toward helping them.