Last year about this time we wondered about Osvaldo Alonso, especially after the Sounders actively shopped him in the offseason. This led me to write this about Alonso’s fate at the time.
While not the same, this off-season had a lot of speculation about Clint Dempsey. Because he was gone from the lineup for the second half of the season and playoffs, many of us were pessimistic about his return in 2017. That is totally logical, considering the team managed to win the MLS cup without their highest paid player playing a minute in the last few months. Add into the equation the medical uncertainty hanging over Clint's entire future, and we just didn’t know what to think. It was a big red flag when he wasn’t invited to the USMNT camp, and I assumed he would be training on his own or limited on the side like late last season. Yet on January 24th as the players came out for warm-ups, there was Clint Dempsey.
Tempering expectations, I still assumed that he was there to support the guys and maybe jog around a bit. I mean, this is a guy who hadn't played in six months, right? Boy was I wrong. Dempsey not only played, he played hard. Immediately pushing himself in warmups, it was evident that Clint meant business. He was jostling with Steve Zakuani and shrugging off challenges from Oniel Fisher. For a guy who missed half of last season he picked up right where he left off, excelling in the various keep away and small-sided games the Sounders often start practice with.
Clint didn’t look remotely out of shape or out of breath either, and that classic Dempsey swagger was in full force. I was close enough at practice to hear him talking smack to others as he beat them, which was often. Clint dominated the drills utilizing tight control, great touch, vision, smart movement, "trying shit", and decision-making, all of which suit his skill set perfectly. Even near the end of the session, he remained dominant. This is telling, because when you get tired from being out of shape, you start to lose the ball because your brain and body are slower. If anything, Dempsey was the opposite, seemingly getting stronger the longer he played. He participated in the beep test halfway through the week and did admirably well, surprising many and showing just how prepared he is.
Any group or scrimmage-type games this week have also been completely dominated by Dempsey. His presence was felt not only by his tactical mastery, but also by his incredible work rate as he demanded the ball from teammates. Each day I watched for any sign of hesitation or weakness, and instead I saw the opposite. Without Alonso and Nicolas Lodeiro training at the beginning of the week, Clint was by far the guy who touched the ball the most every day, commanding possession. The ball gravitated towards Dempsey, and each play in the scrimmages went through him, whether from dropping back to get the ball or constant movement through the middle to receive touches.
Clint was also immediately willing to incorporate the new players in the squad, from instantly clicking with Harry Shipp on some fancy touches through the middle to taking a moment to discuss how best to attack the defense with Will Bruin. He was often grouped with younger players, and I heard some words of encouragement mixed in with the smack talking. All of this great energy is wonderful to see and a victory in itself, but the most impressive thing about the return of Clint Dempsey is how GOOD he looks from an overall soccer perspective. Not just good for preseason, or good for a guy who hasn't played in a while, but GOOD for Dempsey. Good for one of the best Americans to ever play. He (in my estimation) was the best player on the field every single day I watched, including after Nico returned. He was the daily star of practice, excelling in all facets. His passing is great; his vision is great; and he’s consistently linking with others.
One thing I realized I had forgotten was how easily Clint can open up the field in so many different ways, like a smart 40-yard left footed switching pass out of nowhere. He’s constantly moving around, creating space for himself and his teammates. I had forgotten his magnetism and ability to pull defenses apart by forcing multiple defenders to mark him. Dempsey had some WOW moments in which he megged someone or beat two people with a no-look pass or set up an easy tap-in goal, but his most impressive play of the week was his rocket left-footed shot from deep that he scored in Friday’s session. One thing we really missed last season was a goal-direct player from outside the box, and boy, does Clint look ready to change that. He practiced as well as I have ever seen him practice, and was absolutely dominant. Yes, we need to make sure he is healthy and cleared, but Dempsey has frankly been a man among boys at practice so far, and if we get to add this version of him to the MLS Cup championship squad….?? Hmmm.