Clint Dempsey returns, Harry Shipp shines and youngsters make their mark in first Sounders preseason match

Believe it or not, the ball is officially rolling — literally and metaphorically — on the Seattle Sounders’ 2017 season.

Saturday marked the beginning of Seattle’s spate of preseason matches with a fitting curtain-raiser against the Portland Timbers in Tucson, Ariz. The match itself was split into two 45 minute stanzas with nearly a full XI change at halftime from each side. In fact, the only holdover in the field for the Sounders from the first half to the second was Harry Shipp, who came on for Clint Dempsey after a half hour. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller played the full 90.

The actual match itself — it ended 1-1 thanks to a Shipp penalty kick — was more or less immaterial. Individual form, fitness and a more robust glimpse at the new kids was the order of the day. And on that front it was a fine day in the desert for the defending MLS Cup champs.

Here’s a look at three observations from Saturday we can carry forward irrespective of the numbers on the scoreboard:

Dempsey logs an encouraging half hour

One of the biggest questions entering the preseason was whether Dempsey would even play soccer again, let alone factor into the Sounders’ plans in 2017. Once he was cleared to practice in full, those questions soon turned to Dempsey’s utility in 2017. How realistic is Dempsey’s return?

Dempsey answered at least some of those lingering questions on Saturday. He started the match and played its first half hour in what was mostly a positive display. Dempsey flashed those typical foot skills, attempting to step over defenders and work his way into space with moments of individual brilliance. He was deployed as a withdrawn central shadow striker behind Will Bruin with Nicolas Lodeiro on the right side pinching in. Dempsey also doled out a few key passes to spring his flanking midfielders into space, including one well-worked through ball to put Alvaro Fernandez into a crossing position. It was a start, to be sure, but it was an encouraging one.

Shipp makes a startlingly solid case

We’ll get to some of the good individual performances from some other new kids on the block in 2017 in a minute. There were enough performances to warrant some moments of introspection in advance of Seattle’s next preseason match-up on Tuesday against the San Jose Earthquakes (9:30 a.m. PT; SoundersFC.com). But Shipp’s night was so sturdy he deserves his own bullet point. Of every newcomer to hit the field for the first time for Seattle on Saturday, Shipp’s performance was the best.

Shipp came on for Dempsey and ultimately played nearly a full hour in two different positions. The only reason he didn’t finish the game was due to an apparent ankle injury he picked up with about 10 minutes to go that forced him off the field. He played the rest of the first half in Dempsey’s spot centrally, where he developed through the Chicago Fire Academy and Notre Dame, before scooting back to a deeper role as one of the two sitting midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 over the final half. Shipp was slow off the blocks in the first half, but he was the driving force of the Sounders’ much younger XI in the second. He provided the sinew between the lines and was generally the most assured presence on the field. Hopefully his injury isn’t ultimately serious.

Young talent puts down a marker

For the first teamers — guys like Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Joevin Jones — these games are more about finding fitness than anything. There is an element to holding onto your job of course, every player keeps his competitive edge regardless, but the situation for the newcomers is significantly different. Guys like the aforementioned Shipp are fighting for regular-season minutes, and on that front at least a few names likely lodged themselves in coach Brian Schmetzer’s brain for future opportunities.

Aside from Shipp, four names in particular stood out in a second half that was otherwise relatively (and unsurprisingly) disjointed tactically: Zach Mathers, Shandon Hopeau, Tony Alfaro and Tyler Miller. Mathers proved himself as a sturdy central midfield presence and had two moments of severe danger: on a pinpoint 30-yard switch to Hopeau and a well-saved free kick destined for goal. Alfaro had first team cameos in 2016 and had a sturdy 45 minutes during the first half against the might of Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri. Miller was otherwise excellent, once knocking a bound-for-goal shot over the bar. And Hopeau, a U-18 with the Development Academy side, was a firebrand on the left wing and provided a few moments of real danger. All four should get more looks this preseason.

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