3 keys: Sounders still looking for Clint Dempsey replacement entering Cascadia matchup vs Vancouver

Sep 16, 2016, 1:30 PM | Updated: 1:37 pm
Brian Schmetzer is still looking for a player who can fit in his system similar to Clint Dempsey. (...
Brian Schmetzer is still looking for a player who can fit in his system similar to Clint Dempsey. (AP)

There’s been a lot of news surrounding the Seattle Sounders this week – Clint Dempsey’s return to training, Zach Scott’s impending retirement – but on Saturday it’s back to business. Seattle’s playoff hopes hang in the balance of the outcome against Cascadia rival Vancouver. The Sounders again find themselves in the familiar location of ninth place in the West, and a loss on Saturday would be disastrous. With a couple of tough away matches to go, absolutely every match at home must be a win.

As for the Whitecaps, they find themselves in a marginally better position than the Sounders. They’re in seventh place with 34 points, but with two fewer matches left to play than Seattle or San Jose (eighth place, 33 points). A loss in this one would be similarly disastrous, as they could drop to ninth with only four matches left in their season. Aside from last weekend’s win against Columbus, the Whitecaps have had disastrous league form in recent weeks, in part because they’ve also had CONCACAF Champions League matches to play during the week. Since the end of June, the Whitecaps have only won two MLS matches. Not ideal for them.

Sound Stories, episode 2 with former Sounders star Steve Zakuani

Here are three keys for the Sounders in Saturday’s Cascadia rivalry clash at 1 p.m. on KIRO 97.3 FM:

1. Brian Schmetzer has yet to find a placeholder for Clint Dempsey, so who’s next?

It was undeniably uplifting for the Sounders and their fans when Dempsey made his return to training this week, but unfortunately the player remains unavailable for this weekend. In the three matches thus far that the team has played its first choice lineup without Dempsey, head coach Schmetzer has tried a couple of different ways to fill the hole left by the star forward. The Sounders don’t have another player that can easily play the same role in Schmetzer’s system that Dempsey has, but Nicolas Lodeiro’s skill set provides a different style from that position that also works. This has meant that the position that has needed filling is at right attacking midfield. Against Portland, Flaco Fernandez played the right attacking midfield role; in last weekend’s draw with the Earthquakes, Erik Friberg came into central midfield alongside Osvaldo Alonso and pushed Cristian Roldan forward and into the right attacking spot. Neither of these strategies worked particularly well. It’s hard to replace one of the best attacking soccer players that the United States has ever produced. Roldan also needs to be in the midfield pivot with Alonso; he’s at his best on both sides of the ball in that position. Regular readers know that I’m not a Nelson Valdez fan, but against a stout defense like Vancouver’s, Valdez might be the best option to open up space for Morris and Lodeiro. We’ll see what Schmetzer draws up on Saturday. It would be the perfect time for him to finally solve this puzzle.

2. Vancouver’s defense could be all bark and no bite, yet again.

Despite having one of the most intimidating defenders in the league in Kendall Waston, the Whitecaps’ defense is the leakiest in the Western Conference. In their 29 matches this season, they’ve conceded a whopping 45 , and their total goal differential is also the worst in the West at minus-8. Early in the season, when the Sounders were in the midst of the worst start in their MLS history, the Whitecaps came to Seattle and sucker-punched the home side 2-1 thanks to a couple of dodgy penalty decisions. Seattle’s attack, even without Dempsey, is exponentially better than it was back in March. Vancouver needs points from this one just as much as Seattle does, but I don’t see Vancouver taking too many risks in this one. If Lodeiro gets the time and space he needs to get Jordan Morris in behind Vancouver’s defense regularly on Saturday, Seattle could just run away with this one.

3. Vancouver will need more than penalties this time.

In March, Vancouver managed a 2-1 win over a struggling Sounders side thanks to two penalties, both of which were particularly questionable. As the saying goes, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, and the Whitecaps will need to actually try to score if they want a result in Seattle. But like I mentioned above, they’re likely to implement a game plan that will require some dumb luck to get three points. The Sounders have a strong defense and defensive midfield (Tyrone Mears’ recent form aside), and the Whitecaps’ other option of throwing on Blas Perez to cause havoc won’t be as reliable when the notorious forward faces his international teammate, Roman Torres. Giles Barnes and Cristian Bolanos are solid forwards, but they don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of most MLS defenders, much less Torres and Chad Marshall. I expect a tame long-ball strategy from Vancouver, as they’ll be hoping to snatch a draw in Seattle and go for the gut when the Sounders visit British Columbia in October.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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3 keys: Sounders still looking for Clint Dempsey replacement entering Cascadia matchup vs Vancouver