TUKWILA, Wash. — Written off by some mere weeks ago, the Seattle Sounders have worked themselves back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. But if the Sounders are to qualify for the playoffs for the eighth time in eight seasons, they will have to do so without Clint Dempsey.
On Tuesday morning, general manager Garth Lagerwey confirmed what many suspected: an irregular heartbeat has sidelined one of the most accomplished players in U.S. history for the remainder of the 2016 season.
“We said a couple weeks ago that Clint Dempsey’s health was our priority,” said Lagerwey. “I’m here to provide an update today. Unfortunately, we are going to rule him out for the rest of the season.”
Dempsey, who has delivered 34 goals and 22 assists in 72 regular-season appearances since joining the club in 2013, last played in a late August loss to the Portland Timbers. He briefly returned to training two weeks ago following an unspecified procedure. At the time, Lagerwey said the club was “cautiously optimistic” Dempsey would return to the field this season, but the 33-year-old Texas native disappeared from practice only days later.
The irregularity presumably sidelines Dempsey for two crucial USMNT World Cup qualifying matches in November against Mexico and Costa Rica.
“It’s just a sad story,” said interim head coach Brian Schmetzer, who also called Dempsey the best field player in the history of the United States men’s national team. “He’s an integral part of the team, an important part of the team, and a really, really good soccer player.”
The club made clear on Tuesday that they are thinking in terms of Dempsey’s long-term health, and that his return to the pitch is no guaranteed thing.
“We feel that by ruling him out today, it puts us in the best position to eventually get him back, hopefully, for the 2017 season,” said Lagerwey.
Lagerwey also said the club will provide no further updates on Dempsey’s health until the 2017 preseason, and confirmed that Dempsey is under contract with the club through 2017.
For now, the Sounders face tough questions both near and long term.
“How do you replace him? It’s tough,” said interim head coach Brian Schmetzer. “We now have to go on to thinking about the future and everything with and without Clint. We certainly hope he’s back, but we’re a big enough club and a smart enough club to make sure there’s a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and down the road we’ll make those adjustments and calls at the right time.”
In terms of the immediate future, losing Dempsey is not necessarily the death knell it might have been a couple of months ago. Jordan Morris, growing in confidence and stature seemingly by the day, leads the club with 12 goals and delivered a brace in Sunday’s vital 4-2 win over the LA Galaxy. Midsummer signing Nicolas Lodeiro immediately revitalized a somnolent attack, providing eight assists and three goals in just nine appearances. Just as importantly, the Sounders as a team are finding far more and far better looks at goal with Lodeiro on the field: the Sounders are no longer a team that needs to rely solely on one man to generate chances from thin air.
If they qualify for the playoffs, the Sounders will surely be considered less of a legitimate threat to hoist the MLS Cup. Then again, far less talented teams have gotten hot at the right moment, caught a lucky break here or there, and found themselves in the league final.
“I have a high commendation to give the guys who are playing,” said Lagerwey. “We’re playing very well right now. We’re getting some great results. We still have some work to do to get into the playoffs. But we’ve begun scoring goals from multiple positions and multiple players. And that’s how you replace Clint Dempsey. There aren’t many players in the league or the world that are at his level. So we need to replace his production collectively, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that the last eight or nine games.”
“We miss him,” added Schmetzer, “but we’ve had some good results, starting with the one down in LA.”
Dempsey’s teammates will have little time to reflect on the news of his absence. The Sounders host a suddenly respectable Chicago Fire side on Wednesday before visiting the Vancouver Whitecaps this weekend. The Sounders sit three points behind the Portland Timbers for the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot, with two games in hand.