It was recently revealed that the Seattle Sounders’ Clint Dempsey will return to full training after months of a medically-induced absence caused by an irregular heartbeat. This is obviously good news, and hopefully he is lucky enough to remain healthy.
From a soccer standpoint, Dempsey’s arrival in training camp could elevate the Sounders from defending MLS Cup champions to potential 2017 treble candidates. He adds an element to that team that they did not have even when they lifted MLS’s most valuable trophy, making their newfound prowess a scary proposition for their Western Conference rivals.
Few teams in recent MLS history have been as talented as the Sounders when Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Dempsey are playing. We got only four games of that last year; Lodeiro arrived as a No. 10 from Boca Juniors in time for a July 31st draw against LA and Dempsey was ruled out indefinitely after an August 21st victory. This is what their lineup looked like for their best game of that brief period, a 3-1 win over Orlando:
That is an absolutely deadly setup, and it resulted in a 3-1 road beatdown broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1. Dempsey — adding to an uncharastically low goal tally — had a first half hat trick before exiting in the 60th-minute, and Lodeiro and Morris joined the fun with two assists each. If Nelson Valdez hadn’t butchered multiple chances in relief of Dempsey and the Sounders hadn’t jolted the bus to a stop in the second half, the score would have been much less favorable for Orlando.
This game was part of the Sounders’ 3-1-0 record with both Dempsey and Lodeiro available. Their attack during this time — combined, of course, with above-average starters at every other position on the field — was a new animal for MLS clubs, and it was ultra-effective in its limited time.
Lodeiro — allowed the freedom to roam the final third from his wing position — showed up everywhere and hit game-changing balls to players who had seen few of them in a Sounders shirt. Morris used his speed, finishing ability, and crafty channel runs to get himself in positions to score. Dempsey capitalized off of Lodeiro’s distribution and Morris’s ability to draw defenders and poached like any second forward would, to the tune of five goals in those four games.
Sometimes, Andreas Ivanschitz would even do something from open-play (although that was rare). Mostly it was the big three described above doing the things in which they individually excel. If Dempsey hadn’t been hit with an unfortunate case of bad luck, it would have been a lot more predictable of a road to the MLS Cup final.
With a couple exceptions, the lineup shown above will be what the Sounders come out with in March, assuming Dempsey is healthy. (Harry Shipp will replace Ivanschitz, Brad Evans or Oniel Fisher will fill in for Tyrone Mears at right back, and Roman Torres will start at center back.)
Teams will have had time to prepare, but if Dempsey is fully fit come March, expect the Sounders to get off to a hot start that most defending champs struggle to accomplish. An attack that will likely take the mantle of best (and scariest) in the league combined with a championship-winning lineup elsewhere will place them together with FC Dallas as the best team MLS currently has to offer.