TUKWILA — Clint Dempsey’s return from the World Cup began with the opening kickoff of Sunday’s win over the Portland Timbers. That the Sounders star wasn’t the most dangerous version of himself until the second half of the game, however, is hardly a coincidence.
Early in the second half of Sunday’s 2-0 win, another of the Sounders’ star players made a return, with Obafemi Martins coming back from a hamstring injury that kept him out of Seattle’s previous two games. And once Martins and Dempsey were on the field together leading Seattle’s attack, that’s when the Sounders were at their best, dominating Portland on the way to two second-half goals.
Of course, it would be silly to suggest that either Dempsey or Martins wouldn’t succeed in Seattle without the other — each is amongst the most talented players in the league, and both have played well with the other not on the field — but what makes the Sounders the best and highest scoring team in Major League Soccer this season is how well those two play together.
When Dempsey returned to the team late last week, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid noted that it looked in practice like the two hadn’t spent a day apart, let alone a month. Then on Sunday the two designated players reminded fans what they’d been missing during Dempsey’s World Cup absence and Martins’ injury.
“It’s fun. Playing with Oba is like playing pickup, just in terms of we just look for each other,” Dempsey said. “We see the game the same. We like to link up and make those passes that create space for each other so that we can create chances for each other to get looks in front of goal. I really enjoy playing with him. He’s a great player and he has had a great career and he continues to play well.”
Schmid agrees with Dempsey’s “pickup” description of the relationship between the two forwards, and says when it comes to players like those two, sometimes less is more when it comes to coaching.
“It’s sort of like going to the park with your best friend and you just sort of try things,” Schmid said. “Sometimes as a coach you want to say, ‘Mmm, that’s too tight, we need to open it up.’ But they’re able to pull it off so you let them do it. They just have those sort of freelance instincts, and they thrive off each other that way.
“They look for each other, they have a really good awareness when you watch them in training. When one gets (the ball), he knows exactly where the other one is and vice versa. Oba helped us when he came in for sure, and getting that amount of minutes out of Clint was a surprise, and those two guys together helped our team.”
“Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the way and not get involved and try to implement something that, ‘Oh this is the way it should look.’ No, you let it happen.”
And what’s been happening with Dempsey and Martins this season has been pretty impressive. Their individual numbers — nine goals in 10 games for Dempsey and eight goals and six assists for Martins — are very good on their own, but their overall impact on the game when they play together, the way they open things up in the attack for each other and everyone else is what has really taken the Sounders to a different level this season.
“It’s simple,” Martins said of the duo’s success. “He knows where to run to if I get the ball. He knows where to find me. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it’s just fun playing with him, because it’s easy playing alongside him. I’m happy he’s here on the team.”
It’s hardly groundbreaking for a team to get a good chunk of its production from its highest-paid players, but it’s not a given either. Athletes, especially the best ones, have egos, so when one star player is added to the mix in a season, let alone two, as was the case with Martins and Dempsey last season, it doesn’t always automatically mean good times are ahead. Particularly notable this season has been the willingness of Martins — a forward who has played and excelled in the top leagues in Europe — to take on a role as more of a facilitator to Dempsey’s goal-scorer.
“I don’t know, just doing my own thing, trying to help the team,” Martins said. “Winning, scoring goals, that’s all. … I’m just doing my best. I’m not going to say I’m the one to change the game. I can’t play alone by myself. So I’m glad that we won.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.