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The MLS Grinder: The Clint Dempsey Age is here (finally)

Written by Will Parchman

Jonathan Osorio,Shalrie Joseph

“He’s a world-class player and a world-class player doesn’t forget how to play.” – Mauro Rosales, April 18, 2014

It’s about Clint Dempsey. As it ever was.

I’ve talked about the Sounders in this space before, about a month ago, when they were shown up by TFC on a national stage at home in a game that told us a bit about how Sigi had begun to situate his XI. It also showed an alarming tactical naiveté that cast a pall over another wind-up Sigi narrative: is he there or is he not? Questions abound. Answers do not.

Something snapped inside the Sounders as a collective on March 29, but let’s say this much first. MLS has baked-in insanity from the jump. The worst team in the league can pants the best on any given weekend, and the message boards are surprisingly tame. The expectation may not always be there, but the possibility? It’s always snarling just outside every MLS coach’s door, too thin to keep out the noise and too brittle to keep him safe from the wolf.

MLS fans know this. MLS fans have been bred in their field of expertise in the same way a scientist has in black hole thermodynamics – we are all theoreticians guessing at mysteries beyond our bounds. Sometimes you merely hug the rail and hope the train doesn’t fling you off before you learn something.

The Sounders have scored 13 goals in their last four games, three wins and an incredibly entertaining 4-4 draw in Portland. Two of those wins were on away sod in Dallas and L.A., and the third was a 4-1 mauling of Colorado on Saturday that was breathtaking in its utter lack of complexity. The more you watch his schemes, the more you realize Sigi is really pawing away at some Hemingwayan theater, all short sentences and punchy verbs and a vociferous inner hatred for adjectives. When it works, you hand it to Sigi for getting out of his own way. When it does not, you wonder at how many grease boards he’s seen in his career and what it is about them he hates.

At times the simplest form of tactical tinkering goes no further than switching up your personnel, and that’s made all the difference. In lieu of the disastrous Marco Pappa experiment on the right, the Sounders’ front line has twisted and bristled and then begun to grow within a gradual iteration that looks more or less like we expected – Osvaldo Alonso to Clint Dempsey to Oba Martins. Did you expect width from this side? Because you shouldn’t have.

So what’s different? Why the shootouts? A few reasons artfully painted onto canvas by Dempsey himself. Dempsey scored one goal in 921 minutes last year. This season, in 481 minutes and half as many games, he has eight goals. Something’s different. Dempsey is different.

Pappa was undoubtedly Schmid’s biggest tactical blunder of the early season swoon, and when Pappa made his first reappearance against Chivas USA, he did so on the left wing. Better already. Kenny Cooper is perhaps more versatile than most give him credit for, but his deployment on the right makes Seattle incredibly predictable. Cooper has decent wheels, but he’s limited when you take him out of his comfort zone. A look at his movement when deployed on the right leads you to believe Cooper has done an admirable job in attempting to legitimately stay on the right, but this is plugging a splintered hole in a boat with soggy newspaper. The leak won’t stop. And while Lamar Neagle provides some nice cover as an inverted winger, the real meat has come from a rejuvenated Clint Dempsey.

It begins and ends with Dempsey. Of course it does.

Dempsey played for 90 minutes against TFC, and it was not one of his plus performances. It would’ve held up for a number of players, but this is Dempsey, and you saw him defer too often to his rearguard. He completed 85 percent of his passes, but he was safe. Too safe.

I can only imagine the conspiracy theories orbiting what it was exactly that Dempsey did with his time while sitting out the Montreal and Columbus losses, because when he came back – when paired with a relatively bright appearance against Mexico on April 2 – Dempsey was different. Clearly different. More assertive, Dempsey seemed to be channeling that productive anger that produces plus performances rather than the wobbly, unkempt anger that leads to junk shots and meandering tactical discipline.

You want to know where the thing snapped and bent back in Dempsey’s favor, this is the day.

I can whip out numbers for Dempsey’s performance that day – they’re nearly all All-Star worthy – but this is one of those beautiful instances where the game speaks louder. Dempsey abolishes your desire to seek out the metrics with these kind of ballerina-on-whey protein maneuvers. We talk about his partnership with Oba (that trap to spring Dempsey’s first was world class) and this matters. It opens him up. But these were “Dempsey goals,” beautiful in their simplicity, married to Schmid’s ethos by some strange partnership that lacks bauble.

This, though, deserves witness.

Here’s Dempsey’s pass network in the TFC game. Pay special attention to the location of their root. It’s shallow. Toronto didn’t allow Dempsey to probe deep, but you watched that game and Dempsey seemed almost shy, uncharacteristically unwilling to stick his nose in the fire.


And now here we have his MLS magnum opus, the performance by which we measure the rest. Fifty eight passes attempted, 54 completed, which deserves the appropriate plaudits. But look at the rest. It’s Picasso.


Dempsey completed 14 passes in the attacking third that could be lumped into my newly invented “ambitious passes” statistic. That essentially means they weren’t squared off or laid back and they led directly to a positive secondary action. In sum, they were good enough that they were not wasted by the player on the receiving end. Globally, there are players who do this better. In MLS, there are not. Dempsey has reminded us of this over the last few weeks. Which is good, because he had a hand in helping us forget.

Look at it this way. Dempsey will always doctor a game with whatever it needs – pace, calmness of presence, more wide play, more central play, whatever. The problem is that this does not lend itself particularly well to two scenarios: bad teams and new environs. Here we’ve had the second eventuality. I think – and this was aided plenty by Schmid – Dempsey has continually struggled to figure out what that thing is without completely changing his position. Dempsey needs to be central, but he won’t settle there unless he has enough support up the spine and the wings aren’t completely collapsing. That happened too often down the stretch last season.

This is Dempsey’s heat map from the 2-1 loss to the Timbers in the first leg of their playoff defeat last season. And it was not an isolated case.


Now? This is Vivaldi for Sounders fans.


And this, from SB Nation’s Sounder at Heart blog, is his Winter suite.

Seattle is still, at its core, a direct team. Possession is still clearly not this side’s ethos – one of the only areas where this team hasn’t been on the severe uptick is in pure possession numbers – but was it ever going to be? Alonso’s directive to turn it over and then push is clear, and with Dempsey and Oba finding gaps and the flanks of ancillary importance, there is literally no time to waste with this side.

The evolution of the Sounders under the auspices of Dempsey’s brilliantly fickle leadership deserves its due course. Because this is Dempsey’s team more than it is Schmid’s. The realities of tactics being what they are, Schmid can do little aside from allowing Dempsey to diagnose the game himself and hoping the rest of his charges click in with what Dempsey’s doing quickly enough to keep up. We didn’t see Dempsey do this enough last year. He too often deferred, pulled up and let the game pass him. Was it good for most players? Yes. Was it good for Dempsey? Unequivocally not.

Whether you’re a Sounders fan or not, Dempsey’s form matters to you. And with that in mind, the last couple weeks have confirmed what I suspected might happen all along – that the Clint Dempsey Age is descending upon us.

The tactical nuances of MLS coaching

A very intriguing Twitter conversation broke out on Sunday (BUT AREN’T THEY ALL YOU SAY?!). On the tactical abilities of MLS coaching:

This is a meaty topic with a couple angles, and it doesn’t have a particularly clean cut answer. I have my opinions. But instead of gut reacting, genuinely mull it over and go with what your brain tells you. I’ll avoid wading in without a brand new Grinder to do the topic justice, but I’ll leave the floor open. For now, anyway.

MLS proves its King of Oddities title with D.C. United, Mauro Diaz

What is MLS sometimes?

It’s a question I often ask myself in hazy dusklight and dens lined with mahogany bookshelves and coated in pipe smoke where these things are discussed aside brandy snifters and deep-set armchairs (what, are your MLS philosophy sessions different than mine?). Every time I ask, the MLS avatar for insanity (this is Piotr Nowak screaming at a Girl Scout, by the way) comes up with something great.

This week, it’s D.C.’s continuing upward swing with a manic 4-1 win over a good FC Dallas side that produced this lovely bit of interchange between Blas Perez and Mauro Diaz (who I love watching).

Afterward? All D.C., which is going to derp its way into your heart with enough lovable hijinks that you’ll remember Police Academy 4 and then hate D.C. United all over again. It’s the circle of life. And it moves us all.


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