Clint Dempsey was supposed to be the player the Seattle Sounders had always needed. In one signing, the Sounders thought they had found a playmaker, a big-game scorer and the kind of leader who would step up when the going got tough.
As we now know, it was simply too much to ask ... at least in his first season.
The player we saw in Saturday's remarkable 4-4 tie with the Portland Timbers was very much the Clint Dempsey we had been promised. It's easy to say a player who scored a hat trick -- especially when two of those goals come after the 85th minute -- was the player of the game. But Dempsey was truly outstanding.
As Scott pointed out in his Player Ratings post, Dempsey barely had a bad touch all day. Especially in the second half, and specifically over the final 15 minutes, he was virtually unstoppable. Dempsey completed 10 of 11 passes and fired off six shots during that stretch.
The reasons Dempsey was signed by the Sounders were all on display during that stretch.
What's crazy about the Sounders' performance was that as bad as the game looked at times, they still generated plenty of chances to win. The moment were you could feel the momentum shift was in the 77th minute. That's when Dempsey got the ball in a little bit of space at the top of the penalty area, took on his defender and sent in a beautiful chip to Obafemi Martins at the back post. Martins over-ran it just about a step and ended up firing his header high of the crossbar.
Just the fact that he's able to control Lamar Neagle's pass is pretty impressive, as it came in a bit hot. He then takes it down, runs at his defenders and picks up his head just in time to spot Martins making a far-post run. Even though Martins is not exactly marked, there are two defenders and the goalkeeper all in position to make life difficult, not mention the defenders all around Dempsey. Somehow, Dempsey manages to hit it hard enough to get it beyond the defenders and Andrew Weber, but take enough off of it to keep it a dangerous spot. It's the kind of thing we rarely see MLS players even try.
Although it did not work, that play seemed to spark something. From there on out, the Sounders dominated, outshooting the Timbers 9-2.
The Big-Game Scorer
By the time the match had gotten to the final 15, Dempsey had already scored one goal. It wasn't a particularly highlight-reel worthy strike, as he calmly finished a chance where he was somehow left all alone. But the goal that screamed "big-game player" to me was his second.
A good deal of the credit for this chance goes to Neagle, who does a good job of fighting off Michael Harrington and putting in a dangerous ball. Martins also deserves a bit of credit for getting just enough of a flick to slow it down. Dempsey's first touch is remarkable in that he's able to control that ball at all, but his ability to get a shot off there is something that we haven't seen around these parts since Fredy Montero. It almost looks like he purposefully chipped it just enough to get it over a sliding Weber.
It apparently wasn't caught on the broadcast, but there was a cool moment on the field immediately after Yedlin was taken down by Ben Zemanski. Gonzalo Pineda had apparently been told by the coaches before the game that it was his decision on who should take the penalty if one were to be awarded. Initially, Pineda was ready to take it himself. But Dempsey walked up and this is how Pineda told me the conversation went:
"Clint said ‘are you sure you're ready?' And I said ‘I'm OK, I'm OK.' He said again, ‘Are you sure?' I said, ‘yeah, for sure.' He then said, ‘it would be great to me to do a hat trick.' I said, ‘No problem. Go for it.'
"To me, the most important thing is the team and also it's important that Clint gets confidence with himself because he's a key player for us. He's one of the best offensive guys. We knew that Clint needed that confidence. To me, it's great he scored that PK. But it's also good because we tied the game with the goal. It was a good business for everbody."
Obviously, Dempsey wanted his hat trick. But it takes a certain amount of confidence to ask, ask again and then insist that you get to take it. He knew that if he failed to convert, the narrative would be far different. He didn't care, and more than that, he wanted the pressure. That's what the Sounders have been looking for all along.