Of the team’s three most commonly used forward pairings, the one with Johnson and Martins is statistically the worst. The two internationals – both of whom are having solid seasons individually – just don’t seem to click when paired together. The Sounders have a 3-4-2 record and the pair have combined for just five goals and one assist in the nine matches they’ve both started.
When either forward is paired with Lamar Neagle, those numbers improve dramatically. Johnson and Neagle have started together four times, with Seattle going 2-1-1 and the pair combining for six goals and one assist. Martins and Neagle have started together seven times, combining for seven goals and four assists and leading the Sounders to a 6-0-1 record.
As convincing as those numbers may seem, the club is steadfast in its belief that the Johnson-Martins partnership is improving and offers the best potential upside.
“I thought last game was better than the game before,” head coach Sigi Schmid said on Tuesday, following the 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls. “The game in LA there wasn’t a lot of combinations. The last game there were a lot of combinations.
“I think it’s something that, with game time, it improves all the time.”
Schmid pointed to two moments in particular that could have altered the narrative about the Martins-Johnson pairing. The first came in 38th minute when Martins put Johnson in for a one-on-one opportunity, but Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles was able to make a diving save.
About three minutes later, Johnson nearly repaid the favor when he was able to chase down a ball just outside the penalty area that drew Robles way off his line. Johnson found Martins for an open header, but it glanced wide.
The duo ended up connecting on a season-high nine passes against New York.
But to really understand why the Sounders are reluctant to simply look at the numbers and go with a different pairing, a wider view should be taken.
One problem is that Johnson and Martins have both been unavailable for lengthy stretches because of injuries and international call-ups. That has kept them from ever making more than three consecutive starts together and they’ve only started back-to-back games on three occasions.
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They’ve also started together in some of the toughest situations. Among their nine starts are two road games against the LA Galaxy and two road games against Real Salt Lake. Just two of their starts have come against teams that were outside playoff position at the time of the meeting.
There’s another factor that could complicate things: a fourth forward has entered the conversation.
“That combination can work when we play that combination,” Schmid said about Martins-Johnson. “When Clint [Dempsey] gets into the mix, it changes things up again.”