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Clint Dempsey makes the Sounders better

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Shockingly, this is considered a controversial opinion in some parts but one the data clearly backs up.

As the Seattle Sounders attack continues to sputter along, one of the more frequently posited explanations involves Clint Dempsey — specifically, the assertion that his presence in the lineup is actually a detriment to the team. The theory centers around the belief that the Sounders’ turnaround last season coincided with Dempsey’s forced absence, and that the team’s struggles have returned with him; that Deuce may be a talented player, but his presence requires tactical changes that make his presence a net negative.

It’s a compelling theory, and one that can likely be supported by subjective observations. It’s also wrong, and demonstrably so.

From the outset, it’s important to point out that the key assertion upon which the theory is based can be debunked rather easily. Dempsey made four starts following the dismissal of Sigi Schmid and arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, and in those games the Sounders went 3-0-1 and outscored their opposition 9-4. Dempsey was hugely important during that run of games, scoring five goals and adding an assist; during that stretch, the gap between Seattle and the final playoff spot shrank from 10 points to 2. To claim that Dempsey wasn’t a major factor in helping the Sounders claw their way back into the playoff race is massively revisionist.

Over the course of the 2016 regular season, the Sounders played 17 games with Dempsey and 17 games without. Here’s the breakdown:

2016 season, with and without Clint Dempsey

Played GP P GF PPG GF/G
Played GP P GF PPG GF/G
Yes 17 26 23 1.53 1.35
No 17 22 21 1.29 1.24
Regular season only Data from mlssoccer.com

When the playoffs are included the PPG are virtually identical - 1.53 with Dempsey vs. 1.52 without, while the GF/G without Dempsey remains functionally unchanged. When looking only at the games the team played without Dempsey following Lodeiro’s arrival, there’s a major upward shift in PPG to 1.94, but GF/G is more or less in line with what the team put up with Dempsey in the lineup at 1.38. The bigger shift is in GA/G which was at 1 over the 16-game stretch - a change that’s difficult to attribute to Dempsey. None of this is to say that Seattle played poorly in Dempsey’s absence, as they clearly did not. But the data would certainly seem to indicate that the stretch run was fueled in large part due to a significant defensive improvement and that the team succeeded in spite of his absence rather than because of it.

This certainly isn’t limited to last season, either. The 2015 Sounders were horrendous without Deuce in the lineup, averaging just 0.71 PPG and 0.64 GS/G compared to 2.05 PPG and 1.75 GS/G with him. Much of that can be certainly be attributed to the fact that Demspey’s extended absence coincided with a long-term injury to Obafemi Martins and a number of other factors that made the 2015 season largely one to forget, but Clint’s 10+10 season was certainly instrumental in getting Seattle into the playoffs and putting them in a position to finally end the Galaxy’s season for the first time.

Here’s how the Sounders have fared overall, including the playoffs, since Dempsey’s arrival in Seattle in August of 2013:

The Clint Dempsey era in Seattle

Played GP P GF PPG GF/G
Played GP P GF PPG GF/G
Yes 76 129 125 1.7 1.64
No 44 65 51 1.48 1.16
Playoffs and regular season, all games since Dempsey signing Data from mlssoccer.com

The Seattle Sounders are a better team with Clint Dempsey in the lineup. It’s true this season, it was true last season, and it’s been true since the moment Joe Roth made him awkwardly unzip his hoodie in front of 40,000 people.

That doesn’t mean that Deuce is the best possible use of a DP spot, or that the roster couldn’t be constructed in a better way without him. He’s a unique player that has to be planned around more than is probably optimal. But that’s quite a bit different than saying he’s the root of the Sounders problems or that the team is better off without him. As long as he’s under contract and fit to play, Dempsey should be one of the first names on the team sheet.