After one of the few dark days in Liga MX’s CONCACAF Champions League history, one familiar face stood out. For years, Clint Dempsey has been a player familiar to Mexican fans, a player that has come to symbolize the U.S. Men’s National Team’s attitude and effort throughout his international career.
And on Thursday morning, it was Dempsey’s face plastered all over the Mexican media after yet another big game performance and yet another vital goal.
Dempsey scored the lone goal on Wednesday night as the Seattle Sounders edged Chivas de Guadalajara, 1-0, at CenturyLink Field in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. It was the third MLS win in as many matches against Liga MX foes, and Dempsey was quickly used as a symbol for what turned into a memorable week for American soccer.
The veteran forward’s goal was a vital one, as one the clean sheet that prevented Chivas from finding an away goal of their own. But, when all was said and done, Dempsey saw Wednesday night as more than just a statement win. Instead, he saw it as somewhat of a missed chance for a Sounders team that is expecting much more than one home victory.
“He’s ruing his other chances. He’s a goalscorer,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Those things will affect him. He’ll be plenty motivated for the return leg. He’s a goalscorer that puts himself in good spots and if he gets one or two chances, he’ll usually put one away.
“I’m disappointed not to get more goals,” Dempsey said. “I feel like I could have done better on two more of those opportunities, maybe get a little bit over the ball. But I’m still happy for the 1-0 result.”
In a match defined by close calls and several near misses, it was Dempsey that finally stepped up and took a chance. In the 78th minute, the veteran forward got onto the end of a long-range Henry Wingo cross, rocketing a shot first time that left goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota absolutely helpless.
When all was said and done, the Sounders outshot Chivas, 18-12, in a match with a number of blocked shots and a Will Bruin shot that rattled the post.
“As a soccer fan, I loved it,” Schmetzer said. “I thought that was an entertaining soccer match. I thought both teams came out and played at a very high tempo.”
“They came out and played,” Dempsey added. “It was an open game, back and forth, which I think was fun for the fans.”
While Dempsey earned obvious plaudits for his goal, there were a number of standout performances in the Sounders win. The clean sheet was just as important as the goal, after all, as any draw or even a goal in a one-goal loss would be enough to send the Sounders through.
Stefan Frei stepped up to make some vital saves, including an 11th-minute stop on Alejandro Mayorga on the game’s first chance. The goalkeeper made four total stops while stars like Cristian Roldan, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres stepped up defensively to keep Chivas at bay.
“I thought Cristian played really well, I thought Stefan played really well,” Dempsey said. “It was a team effort tonight. I thought a lot of guys did the job and performed really well. It goes to the team.”
Another such player that stepped up was youngster Handwalla Bwana, making just his second professional appearance. After coming on as a substitute in the team’s MLS opener, the Homegrown midfielder was thrown into the fire with his first start coming against a talented Mexican side.
Bwana thrived through his 73-minute shift, and he credits Dempsey with helping him focus prior to the biggest match of his young life.
“I was talking to Clint. I was like,’ Yo Clint, I’m really scared right now’,”Bwana said. “Clint said, ‘You’re here for a reason. Just do your thing. They brought you here for a reason. Show the fans what you’re about’.”
The Sounders will need to bring that mentality with them when they had to Guadalajara for the return leg. It wouldn’t be the first time an MLS team fell in Mexico after performing well in a home match.
Dempsey has seen those types of atmospheres before, and he knows the challenge that awaits when the Sounders take the field on Wednesday, even if they have a slight advantage from a strong opening leg.
“They’re going to bring a lot of energy. They’re going to come out and try and take the game to us,” Dempsey said. “We have to do a good job of keeping possession and creating our own chances and, if we have a chance to get an away goal, that will make it difficult for them.
“It’s going to be a tough game. We have to go out there and put in a great performance. That’s what it’s about. That’s why you have two legs. You have to not just be able to do it at home, but you have to do it away.”