To bench, or not to bench? That is the question Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer faces regarding veteran forward Clint Dempsey. After Schmetzer omitted Dempsey from the starting 11 against Minnesota United Sunday, the Sounders won their first match of the season, with Dempsey playing the final half-hour and notching an assist to Jordy Delem.
The switch has prompted some to wonder whether the 35-year-old Dempsey might migrate toward a substitute role this season.
Schmetzer said after the match Sunday that the decision to exclude Dempsey was centered around the reintegration of Osvaldo Alonso and Kelvin Leerdam into the starting lineup, and that he didn’t want to risk having to use all three subs on players who had not recently played.
Besides, Schmetzer elaborated Wednesday, his team was not short of options up top.
“If you’re comparing Clint and Nico and Cristian as number 10s, each one has different characteristics for that position, but they’ve all worked,” Schmetzer said. “(Erik) Friberg played there in 2016, he brought a different nuance to that position. … That’s what makes a good team.
“I think the whole team has chemistry. That first 30 minutes was pretty good. I think Cristian can probably play with anybody. Will (Bruin) can probably play with anybody. Overall, I thought it was a good team performance.”
Schmetzer had also said that Dempsey shoots and scores more in the second half. This has been true of Dempsey’s time in Seattle, but the disparity is slight. The Texas native has scored 29 of his 52 MLS goals after halftime, just 56 percent of his scoring. If Dempsey is going to contribute another 15 goals to Seattle as he did in 2017, he’ll require a similar amount of time on the pitch.
Dempsey has not been regarded as a ferocious defender as a Sounder and Schmetzer routinely touts the merits of team defending.
With Schmetzer’s increasing praise of Alex Roldan and the impending return of Victor Rodriguez, who was also on the bench Sunday, could Dempsey’s lack of tackles hinder his playing time?
The decision lies with Schmetzer, who seems savvy enough to understand the need to balance his mantra of everyone contributing on defense with Dempsey’s generational talent. It seems likely that Dempsey will return to the starting lineup before too long.
Schmetzer put it another way: “I don’t think Clint Dempsey is OK with anything but starting and scoring goals. That’s what he’s done his entire career.
“We haven’t made any final decisions, but it looked good. Clint looks good when he’s been in there. Victor might start. I’ve got some options.”
Still, don’t be surprised if other tactical matchups during the season lead Schmetzer to raise some eyebrows with who he asks to contribute off the bench. For a Sounders team that is finally getting most of its first-choice players back to full health, it’s a good problem.