Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers forced to adjust without full roster of star players

There has been some spirited debate surrounding Clint Dempsey’s best usage on the Seattle Sounders’ roster this season, most notably this: Should he drop ever deeper as part of the midfield, as he’s largely done the last couple weeks, or be deployed as an out-and-out striker and operate almost like a false nine?

There is validity to those questions as Dempsey strives to hit his scoring groove for the first time this season. He scored his third goal of the season in Seattle’s smashing 5-0 win over FC Dallas on Wednesday, and just one of those has come in the run of play.

There’s little question Dempsey is still among the most skilled players in MLS, and his free kicks are hard to replicate anywhere else. But as he adjusts to a post-Obafemi Martins world, he’ll have another game to puzzle out his best usage from the sideline after earning a red card for a slap to the face on FC Dallas’s Juan Ortiz. That earned him an automatic suspension, and the game he’ll miss is, unfortunately, the first Portland Timbers match of the year.

On the road.

If Dempsey is the most visible piece of the Sounders, whatever his form currently looks like, his counterpart 140 miles south is unquestionably Diego Valeri. The skilled Argentinean central midfielder is a poster boy for MLS’s drive to get ever more technical in the middle, and it gets no more assured in the final third in MLS than Valeri. The 30-year-old Timbers playmaker has already racked up seven goals and five assists this year, including two goals and an assist in a 3-2 win over Houston on June 26.

While Dempsey rides the pine due to suspension, Valeri is likely to play in Sunday’s bitter rivalry match in Portland despite an ankle injury that’s kept him sidelined for each of the last three MLS matches. Even if he does suit up, it’s unclear how many minutes he can give the Timbers after a while on the shelf.

The Sounders without Dempsey, the Timbers with Valeri at half-speed? Sunday could indeed be a bit different battle than most expect.

But those absences mean two considerably different things. The Timbers lean on Valeri to do things in the build frankly no other Timber can. That’s partially because few other players in MLS as a whole are as simultaneously judicious and creative while stoking chances in the final third.

Valeri is not a volume passer these days, partially because no one in Timbers coach Caleb Porter’s direct passing setup is. In his last MLS match, he attempted just 37 passes, but seven of those were incisively directed into the box. Three led to chances, one of which led to a goal. Further, he’s comfortable sitting in those dangerous pockets of space, and his consistency is a calming presence for the Timbers’ attack. Take that away and Portland gets even more direct than they already were. That’s a major reason why Portland has scored just one goal in its last three matches, all of which finished in draws.

Dempsey contributes, but in a different way that’s frankly a bit easier to substitute for when he’s unavailable. Unlike Valeri, Dempsey’s first instinct is to find his own way toward goal and create chances for himself. He knows he’s a lethal finisher given space and time - his scoring record at the Copa America Centenario speaks for itself - and he’s not shy about taking shots. Against the LA Galaxy last weekend he accounted for seven by himself.

Neither team wants to play without their biggest stars, but it’s worth noting that the Sounders’ primary reinforcement is in rookie form unseen by most anyone in MLS history. Only a select few rookies have ever scored more than Jordan Morris’s current total of seven goals, and without Dempsey he can still be a lethal driver of the attacking corps. That doesn’t mean the Sounders will play better without Dempsey, but it means they can afford to lose him more easily than the Timbers can afford to be without Valeri.

Indeed, Valeri has missed four games this year, and the Timbers scored two combined goals in those games and didn’t win any of them. And Darlington Nagbe, the next brightest creative star in the lineup, has just one goal and three assists this season and hasn’t been on the scoresheet in nearly two months.

Tactically, no Dempsey and possibly no Valeri - at the very least an injury-slowed Valeri - will have an enormous impact on Sunday’s pivotal game. We’ll see which team can cope.