Sounders falling flat as playoffs near

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

As meltdowns go, the Seattle Sounders haven’t quite reached the level of Mexico’s national team. After all, it’s not as if Seattle owes its playoff qualification to the Portland Timbers.

But it’s a comparison that is close to the mark, uncomfortably so for a team that following Saturday’s 2-0 loss to F.C. Dallas has now dropped four games in a row and backed into the playoffs thanks to the LA Galaxy’s 0-0 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes Sunday night.

The Sounders’ recent numbers are staggering. In the last four games, Seattle has been outscored 12-2, never led at any point, and had two players ejected. Included in this run is a 5-1 hammering at Colorado, and a 4-1 humiliation at home to Cascadia rival Vancouver.

As for Clint Dempsey, who was supposed to get the Sounders over the championship hump? He has no goals or assists in 561 minutes.

Dempsey’s struggles, coinciding as they have with the team’s poor form, makes it tempting to think that it was his August arrival that sent the Sounders into a tailspin. In terms of the team’s performance on the field the assertion seems to be a bit of a kneejerk reaction.

Without question, Dempsey has struggled for fitness with hamstring and shoulder issues. But it’s difficult to find fault with Dempsey when he sets up chances like the one on Saturday that put Brad Evans clean through on goal, only for Evans to miss the target.

Dempsey has also been hindered by teams employing the hack-a-Deuce strategy. A quick scan of the league leaders in fouls suffered reveals that in terms of frequency, Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales has been fouled once every 29.04 minutes. Dempsey is being fouled once every 26.71 minutes, and his frustration came to a boiling point against Dallas when the Seattle forward kicked out at Jackson after a foul from behind.

“That’s not like Dempsey,” said ESPN FC analyst and former England international Paul Mariner, an assistant with New England when the two were with the Revolution. “If you look at him over the years in English football and international football, Dempsey doesn’t do that. He takes his lumps and gets on with it. He knows he’s going to be targeted. I think the combination of injury and being not 100 percent fit, and the team constantly changing have made it frustrating for everybody.”

Seattle’s malaise does raise the broader question of whether Dempsey’s arrival compromised off-field chemistry. Seattle already had a deep and varied attack prior to his arrival, and there have been rumblings that Dempsey’s salary of just over $5 million, the highest in the league, has raised the hackles of some segments of the Seattle locker room.

But Dempsey’s paycheck didn’t seem to be causing too many problems early on, as the Sounders won six of seven games following his debut against Toronto on Aug. 10. And if the sight of him playing injured doesn’t score points in the locker room, nothing will.

Instead, Dempsey’s lack of production points to how difficult it is for high-priced midseason arrivals to make a significant impact. This is largely due to a league calendar that puts the new player out of sync fitness-wise with the rest of his new teammates.

Yes, players such as L.A.’s Robbie Keane and Chicago’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco had relatively seamless transitions to MLS, but experiences like those of New York Red Bulls midfielder/forward Tim Cahill are closer to the norm. In fact, Cahill’s difficulties upon his arrival last year are very reminiscent of what Dempsey is going through now.

Cahill struggled with a calf injury for much of his time with New York in 2012, and contributed just a goal and three assists in 1,080 minutes. When New York flamed out in the playoffs against D.C. United, Cahill was among those who underperformed.

In 2013, Cahill has been the Red Bulls’ MVP with 11 goals and four assists in just over 2,000 minutes while playing mostly as a central midfielder.

“I know people want to point fingers at the arrival of Dempsey, but I don’t think there’s anything sinister in it, I really don’t,” Mariner said. “Clint’s been injured, he’s playing on Saturday with a dodgy shoulder. Should he have played? Probably not. It’s a combination of factors, and MLS is a difficult league and it gets more fiery with the start of the playoffs.”

So what are those factors, exactly? Injuries and international callups haven’t helped, as both Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson have both missed significant time and played just one match each during the current losing streak.

But the biggest problem is a lack of defensive consistency. When Seattle was winning six of seven after Dempsey’s arrival, it conceded just five goals. During the current six-game winless streak, the Sounders have conceded 14, when suspensions and loss of form have seen coach Sigi Schmid chop and change his central defensive pairing with regularity. But defending isn’t just the responsibility of the back line. The forwards and midfielders have to do their part as well.

“The biggest conundrum for Sigi Schmid is how do you get these [attacking] guys on the field at the same time, while at the same time producing a side that’s defensively sound and creative in the middle of the park,” said Mariner.

That balance is something Schmid will need to adjust if Seattle is to make any kind of impression once the playoffs start. To be fair, Schmid has used more defense-minded players such as Adam Moffat and Andy Rose in the middle alongside Osvaldo Alonso, but nothing has worked.

“It all comes down to trying to find the right mix,” Schmid told The Seattle Times.

The Seattle manager has one more regular season game to figure things out before the playoffs start.

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