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When flair meets function, Clint Dempsey is a monster

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For at least one game, the Sounders were fun to watch again.

SEATTLE — It has often been said over the past month or so that the Seattle Sounders simply weren’t a fun team to watch. I’ve even said as much.

For even as the unbeaten streak stretched to an impressive 13 games, the Sounders weren’t playing with any sort of flair. Was it effective? Sure. They were getting the results they needed, putting themselves in comfortable playoff position and setting up a shot at winning the conference.

Being entirely fair, this was sort of the tale over the past few years, and yes, that includes the run to MLS Cup. The Sounders had shown they could get results under intense pressure and they even could score goals in bunches when the opportunity presented itself, but the “fun” element was only there in moments and spurts.

Only time will tell how lasting it is, but Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps felt an awful lot like the results the Sounders were piling up during the heady days of the 2014 Supporters’ Shield run. There were flicks and backheels and all sorts of moments that compelled oohs and ahs that made the explosion of emotions following the goals even more satisfying. This team showed they are, in fact, capable of playing fun soccer.

It’s the Deuce, stupid

Like the rest of the team, Clint Dempsey has been reasonably efficient this year. He’s scored enough, assisted enough, and done the kind of things that help teams get results. What we’ve not seen as much of is the guy who simply “tries shit.” Freed from much of his non-offensive responsibilities, we saw that guy against the Whitecaps.

Whatever Dempsey lacked in positional discipline, he more than made up for in offensive contributions. It was his backheel that opened up Cristian Roldan’s shot off the far post that eventually led to the Sounders’ first goal. It was his long-range shot that rattled the crossbar, and served as precursor to the second goal. It was his movement and unpredictability that was leaving the Whitecaps center backs confused and out of position all game.

The play that best exemplified his night, though, was his work on the third goal.

Dempsey starts the sequence with a clever scoop that puts Nicolas Lodeiro into space on the left side. Admittedly, I thought the play was kinda doomed at this point. Lodeiro was free on the wing, but the guy leading the line was Joevin Jones, hardly much of a threat to put away a cross.

But Lodeiro seemed to know exactly what was developing. Dempsey saw the space opening up as Kendall Waston was pulled toward the goal by Jones’ run. Lodeiro sees the run early and puts a perfectly weighted ball back through the box where Dempsey finishes expertly with his left. This was Dempsey at his absolute best, when flair meets function.

Every time Dempsey touched the ball in transition, something special felt likely to happen. There was one moment that actually made me audibly gasp, a reaction that earned me a half-serious warning about not cheering in the press box.

If we needed a reminder that Dempsey can still be an impact player in big games, we got it on Wednesday.

Partners in crime

Dempsey was hardly a one-man show, of course. Everyone involved in the attack seemed only too happy to feed and fuel Dempsey’s energy. But the two players who thrived most in Dempsey’s altered role were Victor Rodriguez and Lodeiro, both of whom were afforded significantly more space. Neither were particularly disciplined in their positioning — similar to Dempsey — but with Dempsey a little further up the pitch, there was less clogging of the central midfield.

Lodeiro’s action map.
MLSsoccer.com

Lodeiro had his best game in months, maybe even of the year. He completed 88 percent of his 69 passes, had four key passes, two assists and scored his first non-penalty goal since April 28. A look at his action map shows that he was just as free-floating as he ever is. The only difference is that he actually had space. Maybe even more than Dempsey, the Sounders absolutely need Lodeiro to be at his best to have any hope of repeating.

For Rodriguez, this was more the culmination of a performance that had clearly been coming. Over the last few games, he’s been the architect of most of the Sounders’ best chances but had yet open his account. His goal wasn’t so different than many of the chances he just barely missed, but was a great strike nonetheless.

He, too, was just a little bit sharper, a little more dangerous, a little more comfortable. If the Sounders can consistently get him, Lodeiro, and Dempsey on the same page, watch out.

The gray cloud

Because the Sounders are apparently paying for goals with blood, nothing good comes without a significant cost. This game saw not one, not two, but four players nursing injuries at some point. Although Roldan, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall could very well play as soon as Sunday against the Philadelphia Union, Osvaldo Alonso will be out a bit longer.

The injury was deemed a quad strain and head coach Brian Schmetzer suggested Alonso might be back as soon as the FC Dallas game on Oct. 15, but that seems very optimistic.

Chances are Alonso will be lucky to return to full fitness before the playoffs. In years past, that would have doomed the Sounders’ season. Now? I’m not sure it changes much.

The Sounders improved to 6-1-2 and haven’t lost any of their past eight games in which Alonso has played less than half the game. That includes a 3-1-1 record in games he didn’t play at all. In the previous 18 games in which Alonso played a half or less, the Sounders had only won four times. Gustav Svensson has proven time and time again that he’s more than capable of picking up the slack and maybe even capable of helping elevate the Sounders’ play.

Most of his starts in central midfield have come with Roldan next to him, but it’s worth noting that the one game with Jordy Delem as his defensive mid partner was the 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. There’s even the intriguing possibility of putting Harry Shipp next to Svensson, if the Sounders decide they want to try something new.

Whatever Schmetzer chooses to do, there’s good reason to think they can be successful. Turns out having a Swedish international just waiting for his chance is a good fallback option.

Stat of the game

0 — After giving up goals to former Sounder Fredy Montero in each of their previous meetings, the defense finally pitched a shutout. Montero’s only shot was a free kick — forcing Stefan Frei into an amazing save — and he was completely shut down in the second half.

Quote of the Day

“That [unbeaten] streak was a good streak. 13 games unbeaten is a great accomplishment, but it also kind of wore on us a little bit as some of those draws were not the results we wanted. So, this group was going to have a breakout game. I think that was tonight.” - Brian Schmetzer