Clint Dempsey is the face of the Seattle Sounders and one of Major League Soccer poster boys. After six years away, successfully carving a career in England, the forward joined the North West club on a Designated Player contract that would net him a cool $4.6 million a year.
Fellow forwards Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins would come and go, Dempsey remained the home-grown hero, the man that was destined to lead the Sounders to MLS Cup glory.
After the Copa America, all looked well for the international forward. Although he got sent off against FC Dallas, he scored one and set one up in the 5-0 win. A hat-trick against Orlando City and a double at home against Portland Timbers took him to six goals in seven games.
Then disaster struck. Dempsey had to undergo tests for an irregular heartbeat. “All our thoughts go out to him and his health. He's got a family so his health is No. 1,” Schmetzer said at the time. “He wants the team to do well on Sunday. From there, I'm not a doctor and I don't know the rest of the timeline.”
A month later the club confirmed that the 33-year-old would miss the rest of the 2016 season and Seattle knew they would have to try and win their first MLS Cup without him.
Seattle played 10 games after Dempsey’s double against Portland, losing just twice and winning five – four-in-a-row during September and October – and finishing with the fourth best record in the Western Conference.
You don’t get to the Conference Finals as a one-man team, and Seattle have a number of talented options that have carried the club to this stage.
Uruguayan midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro has been a revelation since arriving in July. At home to Real Salt Lake he would get on the end of Andreas Ivanschitz pass to curl his first goal into the top corner with his left foot, and then he set up the exciting Jordan Morris for the second.
In the Conference Semi-Finals, Seattle facing a difficult fixture against FC Dallas, got fortuitous. The Texas side, built for attack, came out playing 5-3-2 and not used to being the negative side, it backfired.
Ending the regular season with four goals and five assists, Lodeiro would show his true worth against Dallas. The home side scored three times in eight second half minutes, with the former Ajax midfielder grabbing two, once Nelson Valdez had opened the scoring.
The favourites may have won the second leg 2-1, but it was an away goal from the little Uruguayan that made all the difference, putting the Sounders on course for a Conference Final showdown.
However, FCD’s downfall won’t happen to the Colorado Rapids. Pablo Mastroeni’s team are built for defence. The former USA defender has done a wonderful job with the mid-west side and they will give the North West powerhouse a strenuous test.
During the regular season, Seattle scored just once in their two previous meetings. Colorado won both those fixtures and they only allowed more than one goal just seven times during the campaign.
“Colorado has gained some deserved notoriety for being the best defensive team in our league this year,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer. “But they have some attacking weapons and we can’t forget about that.
“We like [Kevin] Doyle. He’s a good No. 9 for me.”
The Sounders will attack, it’s what they do best and it’s what their players are set up to do. In 34 games, they scored five goals more than the Rapids, but conceded 11 more. Houston Dynamo, who finished 19th in the overall table, let in 45 goals, just two more than Seattle. Yet, Schmeltzer’s team won 14 times, one less than their Conference Final opponents.
It makes for an intriguing and exciting battle, one that will be incredibly hard to predict and that’s how Seattle will like it.
“The good thing is that our first game is home,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “After this week break, we’re able to play at home and not travel. For me, that’s a little more of an advantage, but at the same time if we don’t take care of business it’s not.”
If Seattle can go all the way, one of the biggest reasons for their success will be the sensational home-grown talent, Jordan Morris. Named the 2016 AT&T Rookie of the Year, the forward enjoyed a prolific career with Stanford University before coming through the Sounders FC Academy and joining the team in January.
His 12 goals leads the team in scoring and has set an MLS record for an American-born rookie and is the second-most overall.
“Jordan is a big reason that our club has been successful this year. He has dealt with huge expectations and pressure from the media, and handled himself like a veteran pro,” said Head Coach Schmetzer. “I believe that he can improve in some key areas, and he has shown his willingness to learn and become a better player. His ability to impact the team in different areas is in line with our overall ‘team first’ mentality here in Seattle.”
It’s been a huge learning curve for the young forward, going from a place on the right, to the main centre-forwards job, he was then moved to the left to accommodate Valdez. Morris also showed his willingness to learn and improve, originally a wide-player that would check back, look for support, he has begun taking on his man, committing defenders, displaying a lift in the confidence he has in his own ability.
The 22-year-old may not have scored in his last nine game, but that run of five goals in seven games from August to September undoubtedly helped the club secure a play-off place.
Dempsey won the Rookie of the Year award in 2004 and 12 years later is one of the greatest players in the USMNT history. Huge shoes to fill, but if Morris can do something special to help his club go one step further against Colorado, then it might not be the only similar step the youngster takes in his career.