The Importance of Being Erik

The Seattle Sounders have rebounded from an 0­3 start to take 13 points from their last six games. Yet all was not well in the Pacific Northwest heading into Saturday’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes. Discussion about Clint Dempsey’s ineffectiveness in 2016 has persisted through the turnaround, his stat line of just one goal and no assists after eight games a far cry from the player who racked up 25 goals and 20 assists the past two seasons. Head coach Sigi Schmid has repeatedly stressed the need for Dempsey to be more involved and to play closer to goal. Seattle has (predictably, thanks to the departure of Obafemi Martins) struggled to move the ball through the middle, as it did so successfully last year, and Dempsey’s had to drop extremely deep to find touches. We’ve come to accept Dempsey as a player who can drift through games before roaring to life at a crucial moment, but those bursts of brilliance have been too far and few between this year.

Saturday, however, was the return of the old Dempsey. He got on the ball high up the field. He made threatening runs at the San Jose defense. He moved the ball quickly and decisively in the final third and his well­ taken goal was just one of several moments he popped up in the opposing penalty area. This is the Clint Dempsey Seattle’s title hopes are riding on. This is the Clint Dempsey Schmid must figure out how to get every match and Saturday’s one significant lineup change offered a telling glimpse of how he should go about doing that. Erik Friberg made his long­ awaited return from injury to replace Cristian Roldan in central midfield. By all accounts, Roldan was good in Friberg’s absence, but veteran Sounder Brad Evans summed up the difference between the two players nicely after Saturday’s win:

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“If I’m another team, I notice the subtle differences when there’s lineup changes. When I see Cristian and Ozzie playing in the midfield, it’s more defensive and side­to­side. Ozzie has taken a few chances and risks that he hasn’t in the past. That’s a combination of there being two in the middle and with Christian not being as attack­minded. Then, when somebody sees Erik on the field, you know that if you don’t pressure him at the right time, he’s going to find a forward pass. A lot of times tonight, he found himself in time and space able to make a forward pass. That can change a game for any team.” – Brad Evans

Erik Friberg's passing vs San Jose 5/7/16. Courtesy of MLSSOCCER.com

Erik Friberg's passing vs San Jose 5/7/16. Courtesy of MLSSOCCER.com

It certainly changed the game for the Sounders. Friberg was arguably the best player on the field Saturday, acting as the main link between defense and attack. His ability to “find a forward pass,” as Evans put it, meant Dempsey could stay higher up the field and not have to worry about the ball getting stuck in the build­up.

GM Garth Lagerwey said the team will look to make a signing in the summer transfer window. There have been calls for another forward, but after seeing how important a player like Erik Friberg is to the side, Lagerwey might be better off hunting for midfield depth. Because this is Dempsey’s team now and for the Sounders to make any noise this season, No. 2 has to be at his best.