The 2017 MLS Cup may be a rematch, but it’s unlikely to be a carbon copy of last year’s event. And if there’s one person who could really change the complexion of this season’s finale, it’s Seattle Sounders FC striker Clint Dempsey.
The former U.S. nation team captain was forced out of the 2016 final thanks to an irregular heartbeat that was detected with about one-third of Seattle’s schedule remaining. Initially, it was believed the ailment could be career threatening, but Dempsey received off-season treatment that allowed him to return to the pitch last spring. The 34-year-old scored in his first game back and wound up pacing Seattle with 12 goals in 29 outings, earning himself MLS comeback-player-of-the-year honours.
The real reward, however, is coming back to BMO Field and playing in Saturday’s final versus Toronto FC 12 months after he was forced into the role of nervous observer.
“It was tough not being on the field, being able to battle with the guys,” said Dempsey. “I’m happy to be back.”
And the Sounders are thrilled to have him. Coach Brian Schmetzer made a point to note that, while Dempsey was sidelined for Seattle’s run through last year’s playoffs, he had a big hand in getting the club turned around before his health issues were revealed.
“He’s tenacious inside the box, he scores goals, he’s a great passer, he leads by example,” Schmetzer said.
None of that is news to TFC. Michael Bradley, who’s competed in many games beside his fellow American on the international stage, praised Dempsey’s ability to turn seemingly harmless plays into goals. Indeed, forgetting about Dempsey for even one second can be a team’s undoing.
“He’s always roaming around the box,” said Reds midfielder Marky Delgado. “He can be out of the game for quite some time and the last minute he’s right there for a second ball or making a late run into the box and, bam, goal on you.”
While Dempsey figures to be a major point of focus, he’s not the only scoring threat making his first appearance with Seattle in an MLS Cup. Forward Will Bruin was acquired in the off-season from the Houston Dynamo after a disappointing 2016 campaign that saw him net just four goals. Dawning green, however, agreed with Bruin, who rediscovered his touch and finished the regular season with 11 goals in 31 contests, the second-most on the team behind Dempsey.
“Will’s good in the box as well [but he’s] a different type of forward,” said Schmetzer. “Will’s going to get on the end of balls and do some of the dirty work, Clint’s going to get his foot on the ball more often and make some good passes.”
Thanks to its duo up front, the Sounders could present a different game plan than the defence-first approach it used to win a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw last December after failing to put a single shot on target in 120 minutes of play.
“They really didn’t have that last year,” Delgado said of Seattle’s ability to push the offence “They sat back most of the game, but I feel they have more in the attack this year. It’s going to be a very different look.”