Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dempsey behind Seattle Sounders' decline

(c) Author's collection
Rumours persist that Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid needs at least an appearance in the MLS Cup Final to retain his job. 

He won’t get it.

Despite boasting – on paper – the best forward line in the seventeen-year history of MLS, the team has almost completely failed to gel and enters the playoffs with form that can only be described as calamitous.

The downturn can be traced to what seemed the Sounders’ zenith, the capture of USMNT talisman Clint Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur and his presentation to the throng as all-conquering Caesar.  The crowd thrummed as “The Deuce” emerged onto CenturyLink field to his rather overstated rap, all expectant that the best-credentialled outfield player in American soccer would complete Seattle’s reformation from inertia-bound locomotive into filthy, filthy machine.  Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales?  Heaven help Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy.

But it hasn’t worked.  Almost immediately, centre-forward Eddie Johnson – whose relationship was instrumental in Dempsey even considering MLS and the Pacific Northwest in particular – began agitating for a pay rise (which in all honesty is probably deserved).  Martins has spent more time writhing on the astroturf and trainer’s table than potting goals.  Mauro Rosales, shunted from the number ten role to the centre of the park and latterly to the right side of midfield, has his minutes carefully rationed for fear that too much noise from the Emerald City support might resonate unwittingly with his hamstrings and cause irreparable damage. 

The Deuce started listlessly; his play has since degenerated.

In the eight matches since Dempsey’s debut, the team has one win, three draws and four losses; their goal difference a beastly -8.  If it weren’t for Sunday evening’s goal-line gaffe, that record would be the win, two draws and five straight losses.

Schmid simply hasn’t been able to generate the results that the Sounders – and their fans – are used to.  This can be, in part, attributed to injury with Rosales and feelgood story Steve Zakuani unable to give the team the width required to open the centre for Dempsey, Johnson and Martins.  The signing of Shalrie Joseph has been both curiosity and disappointment and the centre-back pairing of Djimi Traore and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have almost – but not quite – entirely failed to gel with goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.

None of these situations present insurmountable problems.  More galling is that Schmid hasn’t been able to work in his ostensible star-of-stars, Dempsey, who has spent much of his time as a Sounder either underperforming, disinterested or both.

The weekend’s key home encounter with rivals LA Galaxy was telling evidence towards the argument that Dempsey doesn’t necessarily fancy being the face of MLS in Seattle. 

The club’s shiny new plaything, the player meant to get them over the top in the league, the guy MLS made sure the Sounders obtained, played the softest ninety minutes of football imaginable, shirking every challenge and seemingly more interested in attempting pretty flicks than either running or playing simple, effective balls (the single physical encounter he allowed himself resulted in him lying supine on the turf with the back of one hand across his brow like a fainting Victorian heiress).  Throughout, his body language ranged from “awful” to “teenager”.  The combination of body language, attitude and on-field decision making suggested Dempsey simply didn’t want to be on the pitch – let alone MLS.

For Seattle to win playoff games, Schmid has to engage Clint Dempsey, not because he’s their best player (and he is) and not because they lack goals (they do), but because $5,000,000 a season needs to buy you more than Dempsey has delivered thus far.  The money paid to Dempsey has not provided sparkle, leadership or even effort.  Sigi Schmid may have no recourse but to play his star man from the bench in this week’s home-and-home match against Colorado, thereby risking the ire of supporters and ownership.

If managers are responsible for consciously setting a team’s tone, the subconscious attitude of a team derives from team leaders.  In locker rooms, unspoken leadership emanates from those paid the most, their wages usually a reflection of standing within the game.  The observable tone set by Dempsey, a Europa League finalist, has been poor; the appropriate results have followed.

There are precious few circumstances in which a player paid at premium prices does not set the tone for the team.  One of which is the presence of a respected, long-time leader which - thankfully - the Sounders have in Osvaldo Alonso.  However, no matter how powerful a presence Alonso may have the tone has been set by paying Dempsey – a consequence no one considered might happen when news of Dempsey’s signing began to filter through.

With a limited squad and a grumpy talisman, the Sounders have no chance of challenging for the MLS cup.  The impetus doesn’t need to come from Schmid but from Dempsey; the biggest question is whether he’s inclined to soul-search, and if so, whether three days is enough time to do so.

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