By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson have celebrated success with the U.S. national team and are aiming to do the same with the Seattle Sounders.
They won’t have to wait long for the chance as coach Sigi Schmid said both are in his plans to play tonight when Seattle meets Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field with first place in MLS on the line.
“They’re ready to go,” Schmid said. “We’ll still figure out what part and what role they’re going to play, but they’ll play a role.”
Dempsey and Johnson each started Tuesday when the U.S. national team beat Mexico, 2-0, and clinched qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“There were times when people were questioning what was going on,” Dempsey said. “I remember being in the Denver camp and the drama surrounding at that point, and from there we went on a 12-game unbeaten streak, and then we lost to Costa Rica and questions started to rise again. … I thought the boys showed a lot of character being able to see it out sooner rather than later.”
Now Dempsey and Johnson return to a Seattle season that has had similar ups and downs. The Sounders went 0-3-2 over their first five games, but have been on a 14-5-2 tear since, including four straight wins.
The run has moved Seattle to within two points of league-leading RSL, and a win Friday would move the Sounders to the top.
“A lot of people were writing us off five games into the season,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “A lot of people are now saying we’re MLS Cup favorites and Supporters Shield favorites. Our job is to keep it even: First, qualify for the playoffs; next, try to make it through the first round; then the second round; make it to an MLS Cup. … The team has performed really well. But it really doesn’t mean much unless we make it to the playoffs and then progress.”
The club that finishes with the league’s best regular-season record wins the Supporters Shield, which carries benefits beyond bragging rights. The Shield winner qualifies for 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League and is assured of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, including hosting the MLS Cup if it advances that far.
But as Schmid notes, the Sounders don’t have to win the Shield to host the MLS Cup — they just need a better record than the Eastern Conference finalist.
“The Supporters Shield is something I think the teams always feel good about winning,” he said. “With the unbalanced schedule I think it’s not entirely fair, it’s a little bit tougher sometimes on the stronger conference. But it is what it is. If it’s there, whatever club wins it, I think, is happy to win it. If you don’t win it, I don’t think you’re going to lose a ton of sleep.”
Still, fans and players like the idea of looking at the MLS standings and seeing no one ahead and 18 clubs behind.
“It’s always better to be up in the standings,” goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said. “It keeps you more confident. It’s more quiet around the team then, you don’t feel that much pressure. We are happy with the situation, but in the end it’s just a picture of now. We know very well it can change pretty quickly. We have a lot of tough games. It starts on Friday.”
Dempsey heads into the match still looking for his first goal or assist after four appearances with the Sounders. Johnson returns tied for the team lead with seven goals.
The seventh came in his last appearance with the club Aug. 31 at Columbus. It became controversial when he celebrated by rubbing his fingers together and mouthing the words “Pay me.”
Back training with the team Thursday for the first time since then, Johnson offered this explanation: “When you work hard in life, sometimes you just want to be rewarded,” he said. “But at the same time you’ve got to be patient. I guess it was the first thing that came into my mind. But that’s behind me. … Just for the fans: I’m happy here in Seattle, couldn’t be happier to be in a better professional environment playing with such great players and a wonderful organization.”