By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — Through five games, the Seattle Sounders are hardly off to a blazing start with a 2-2-1 record. And while everyone involved in sports will tell you team results matter more than individual stats, in the case of the Sounders early season performance, the play of two individuals could be, somewhat paradoxically, more important than the team’s current record.
While Seattle’s place in the standing isn’t particularly impressive — tied for fourth in the Western Conference, six points behind Saturday’s opponent, first-place FC Dallas — a look at the MLS statistical leaders paints a more encouraging picture for the Sounders. Leading the league in goals is Clint Dempsey, who has four goals despite playing only three of five games and starting two, and Obafemi Martins is tied for the league lead in assists, also with four.
The Sounders signed Martins as a designated player at the beginning of last season, then a few months later added Dempsey, currently the league’s highest-paid player, because they felt some star power was needed to get what was already a very good team over the hump. Yet because of injuries and national team call-ups for both players, the Sounders’ two highest-profile players were on the field at the same time for just three games last season, totaling 109 minutes. Neither scored, nor assisted on a goal while the other was on the field, and for the fifth time in as many seasons, the Sounders were eliminated from the playoffs earlier than desired.
Five games into this year’s 34-contest season, the Sounders have ample time to climb up the standings, so a 2-2-1 start, which included rare back-to-back home losses, is hardly a cause for serious concern. But five games, three of which have seen Dempsey and Martins paired together in Seattle’s attack, is a large enough sample size to see that the Sounders’ two highest-paid players have a good thing going, which again, could very well be more significant in the long-run than is a mediocre start in terms of results.
“We’ve had more opportunity to have conversations and try to figure things out, and also play together on the field,” said Dempsey, who earned MLS player of the week honors for three-goal performance in Portland that saw him score twice with assists from Martins.
“He’s a great player, and I enjoy playing with him. We’re on the same page a lot in games. In terms of our link-up play, we try to find each other in good positions to create chances. … I enjoy playing with him, that partnership is growing, and I think it’s just going to get better and better.”
Particularly encouraging for Seattle is the quick start by Dempsey. He failed to make an immediate impact last summer, joining the Sounders in what was for him preseason form, then struggled to earn playing time while on a loan to English Premier League club Fulham. That made Dempsey the topic of a lot of “what’s wrong with him?” and “has he lost a step?” questions. So far, he’s answering those questions emphatically.
“Now I feel good, I feel like I’m in a rhythm, I feel like because of that fitness (from the Fulham loan) and feeling sharp and feeling strong, that I was able to come in here and have more of an impact on games,” Dempsey said. “… Right now it is the best that I’ve played (with Seattle) because of the confidence level that I’m at but also the fitness level that I’m at.”
Martins has been more playmaker than goal-scorer at this point, scoring just once through five games. But while he, like any forward, would like to find the back of the net more often, he is fine with helping Dempsey score if it means better things for the team.
“As a team, we’ve got to help each other, so that’s what we’re doing,” Martins said. “I’m happy for him now that he’s doing well … He helps my game as well. It’s not just scoring goals, I just want to help the team try to win games and trying to score goals as well, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m happy to do that.
With Martins and Dempsey looking so dangerous as a tandem, and with Seattle’s third designate player, Osvaldo Alonso, being the dominant force he always has been as a defensive midfielder, the Sounders currently have a good thing going with their big-money players. And that’s not something the team is taking for granted. Like just about every MLS team, the Sounders have had their misses on designated players, most notably Blaise Nkufo and Christian Tiffert, each of whom lasted less than a full season.
Of course none of the early success by Dempsey and Martin will mean much if the win-loss record doesn’t eventually improve, and if the Sounders don’t make a deep run in the playoffs. But for now, getting goals and assists from those two is a very good sign for a team that invested heavily in both.
“We’ve certainly had some mixed success with our DPs, and ultimately the proof will be in winning championships, but this year Ozzie, Oba and Clint have been tremendous for us,” said Sounders general manager/minority owner Adrian Hanauer. “Without them, we probably don’t have the seven points we’ve accumulated. It’s great to see their success, but we’ll reserve final judgment until later.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.