Clint Dempsey owned the final 20 minutes of Seattle’s 2-1 loss in Salt Lake City this Saturday.
Dempsey demanded the ball and received it. He set up the lone Sounders goal by cutting inside the Real defense and snapping off a shot that was later turned into the net by Chad Barrett.
A few minutes later, in the 77th, Dempsey slipped into a sliver of space and fizzled a shot inches wide of the post. He created for teammates, too, heading a ball into Chad Marshall’s path for a near-miss in the 85th.
But for the first hour, Seattle’s leading man was nearly anonymous.
Real Salt Lake deserves a chunk of the credit for that, of course. Its defenders set a tone with early aggression and its midfielders dropped back to squeeze out most Sounders attacks.
“Whenever he got on the ball we get somebody in his face,” RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “Someone is stepping on his toes, and making sure if he’s playing, he’s playing backwards.”
But even when the Sounders found space on the counter, as they did with regularity in the middle of the first half, they weren’t able to create many meaningful chances.
DeAndre Yedlin played a ball too far for Brad Evans one trip and Evans played a ball too far for Yedlin the next. Wingers would run at defenders only to look up and find a deserted penalty area. Seattle was missing the influence of Obafemi Martins, Dempsey’s usual strike partner and a player who sees similar angles, who was suspended after picking up a second yellow card against Houston.
“We just weren’t getting the ball in there enough,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. “There were times where (Dempsey) was freed up and we didn’t look forward. We got caught in the midfield sometimes, losing the ball from behind.
“There’s one pass in my mind right at the beginning of the game: We played a ball outside, and Dempsey shows in the middle and the guy misses the pass by five yards.”
But then Dempsey wasn’t especially eager to drop back and force his way into the game, either. He stayed passively marooned on his attacking island for long stretches until called into action by RSL’s second goal.
Part of that is a veteran’s savvy in picking his spots. Another is a lack of rest – Schmid admitted after Wednesday’s cup semifinal victory that Dempsey’s absence was partially motivated by the fact that he hadn’t had a proper break since last winter.
But step one in Seattle returning to its previous attacking form is to get Dempsey involved in the game before it’s always slipping away.
By the numbers: 250 – the number of passes Real Salt Lake completed in the first half to Seattle’s even 150.
In their own words: “These game really are six-pointers the rest of the way. You can really start putting some distance from other teams. … There are less and less available games to play. I think guys are starting to smell it and feel it” – RSL coach Jeff Cessar
Up next: Seattle Sounders v. San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday at 7 p.m. at CenturyLink Field.