I might seem crazy to even suggest that the Sounders are better without arguably the best soccer player that our country has ever produced (and if you like Landon Donovan better, Clint Dempsey is likely your runaway number two). However, for the defending MLS Cup Champions, Dempsey just isn’t a good fit anymore.
Back In 2015, Dempsey and Obafemi Martins were a very dynamic duo, scoring 25 goals and registering 16 assists between them. The best part of that? They each only played in about 60% of the Sounders regular season matches. The brand of soccer that was on display more closely resembled an AND1 Mixtape basketball game rather than a typical MLS strike partnership. Dynamic, exciting, effective. The team was built around these two.
Then Martins decided to move to China for a massive payday with Shanghai Shenhua right before the start of the 2016 season.
Jordan Morris did his best to try and replicate the successful partnership with Dempsey that Martins provided, but it just wasn’t the same. The Sounders went 6-12-2 (W-L-D) until Sigi Schmid was fired. Things got better briefly with the introduction of Nicolas Lodeiro, but just four games later, Dempsey was done for the season with a heart condition.
So here’s where the issues start for me.
With Martins gone, there was an incredible increase in pressure on Dempsey. He attempted to put the team on his back, but was ineffective up until the point where Schmid was fired (only 3 goals and 1 assist out of his season total of 8 goals and 2 assists). The numbers looked good in the four games that both Dempsey and Lodeiro played (5 goals and 1 assist for Dempsey, 1 goal, 4 assists for Lodeiro), but these numbers are inflated because Lodeiro was completely new to the league and teams hadn’t yet adjusted to him.
Flash forward, and Lodeiro acting as the lone playmaker leads the Sounders to the MLS Cup in December. Everything is great, and guess what? The defending champs are getting a great American hero back into their lineup after Dempsey is cleared to resume his career. They’re never going to lose again! Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened to this point in the season, as the team has stumbled to the clubs worst ever start (2-4-4) in 2017.
So what’s wrong?
Is it a championship hangover, lack of desire, injuries, or something else?
I argue that the structure of the team right now is not setup to handle the presence of two playmakers like Dempsey and Lodeiro in the lineup at the same time. Where that worked so well with Dempsey and Martins because of how free flowing it was, it’s equally just as bad between Lodeiro and Dempsey. Dempsey wants to freestyle, and Lodeiro shuttles the ball around in a more traditional manner.
The tactical change to a 4-2-3-1 formation from the Sounders isn’t helping in this situation, either. Too often Dempsey and Lodeiro are occupying the same space in the middle, leaving Morris or other attackers too isolated to build a proper attack.
Isolation thus far has caused the Sounders attack to be extremely hit or miss, depending on the chemistry between Dempsey and Lodeiro. When Martins and Dempsey were successful, they were part of a 4-4-2, so their teamwork happened further up the field in more dangerous positions, and their teammates were able to better support when needed.
As seen by the way that last season went, Lodeiro is more than capable of being the Sounders’ lone playmaker. He works best when he has free reign to move about the pitch as he pleases. But what doesn’t help that freedom is having a lurking Dempsey trying to find his way onto the ball in the same spaces as the true playmaker.
So how do I see this getting fixed? I think that the best thing to do would be to make the decision to build the roster around one of the two of Lodeiro and Dempsey, rather than both of them.
In my opinion, it would be smarter to build around Lodeiro moving forward, for many reasons. Some superficial, but the main reason that to build the team around Lodeiro instead of Dempsey is that the team has been proven highly successful with that type of setup. Some tweaks of the roster would still be needed, specifically, a strong target forward and a highly skilled winger. Make these changes, and Lodeiro will have a field day with MLS defenses as the advanced playmaker that he is.
Don’t get me wrong, Dempsey would still be a fantastic piece on a team that can keep him higher in a two-forward set. The Sounders simply aren’t that team anymore. As a result, Dempsey’s effectiveness is quickly waning, and I believe that now is the time for a true changing of the guard. Let him go finish his career in his home state of Texas, with either Houston or Dallas, and move on.
So I want to thank Dempsey for helping bring a title home to Seattle, but it’s time to bring in some fresh talent to take the team back to the promised land.
Statistics provided by MLSsoccer.com