SEATTLE – Not long after putting the final touches on his long-awaited home debut Sunday night, Clint Dempsey was greeted on the turf at CenturyLink Field by one of the main men who brought him back to Major League Soccer.
Sounders part owner Joe Roth – the Hollywood film mogul who pushed the multi-million dollar deal to land Dempsey with all the subtlety of a summer blockbuster – approached his new leading man with a two dollar bill emblazoned with Dempsey’s face on the back, smack dab over the depiction of the signing of a Declaration of Independence.
They call it the “Deuce Dollar” in Seattle, and Dempsey earned his pay the hard way during the Sounders’ 1-0 win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday night.
Thrown into the starting lineup for the second straight game, Dempsey logged a full 90 minutes in front of a full-throttle crowd of 67,385 fans, all of whom were waiting for the first tantalizing sign that the Sounders’ summer shopping spree was well spent. Though Dempsey failed to score for the third straight game since his MLS return, his hardy shift against a Portland Timbers team clearly intent on pounding him proved he’s not far off from full fitness or from finding his midseason form.
“I’m happy with the way things are going,” Dempsey said. “I feel like I’m getting stronger every game in my fitness and the quality of my touches, and the looks I’m getting. I think it’s just a matter of time before it starts falling in the net for me.”
Dempsey was pesky much of the second half as the Sounders asserted themselves in the match, and nearly scored in the 75th minute with a thudding header of a Mauro Rosales corner kick. That look – which was cleared off the goal line by Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri – was Dempsey’s best of the night, but he had others. He watched his left-footed shot tipped wide of the post by Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts in the 80th minute, connected on an audacious but unsuccessful bicycle kick in the 84th and attempted a flying scissor kick inside the Timbers box in the 70th minute that left the crowd aching for more.
“He's going to try stuff,” said Sounders midfielder/defender Brad Evans, Dempsey’s teammate on the US national team. “He's going to try the flicks, try the behind-the-back pass. It's getting used to that, it’s anticipating, and it's the day in and day out. It's only going to get better.”
The Timbers, for their part, seemed comfortable bodying up Dempsey nearly all night in an attempt to slow him down. That strategy was clear from the outset, as Valeri deposited Dempsey on the turf in the 15th minute and defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste put him down again in a collision not much later. Hulking defender Pa Madou Kah hounded Dempsey as long as he could in the second half, and head referee Jair Marrufo warned the two in the 49th minute after they traded elbows off the ball.
Dempsey addressed the game’s physicality with typical nonchalance – “it’s a man’s game, you just gotta keep getting up,” he said after – but there was no mistake he took his lumps. After the game Sounders trainers strapped ice bags to Dempsey’s right knee and right calf, leaving him looking like a middleweight who’d survived a 12-round bout.
“It was a hard game for him today,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “The stats say he was fouled three times, but I thought he got fouled more often than three times.”
Said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter: “We’re a hard team. We’re a tough team. We’re not going to back down, and we’ve said that all year.”
Dempsey, however, shrugged off the idea that he was a target for the Timbers, despite the physical play.
“It’s always going to be like that in derby games, when you’re playing against your rivals,” he said. “Everybody is going to show that they came to play, and at the end of the game I thought we had more quality and we deserved to win.”
Next up for Dempsey is another road game – his third since signing with the Sounders – on August 31 against the Columbus Crew. He’ll suit up again in front of the Seattle faithful on Sept. 4 against Chivas USA.
“I’m trying to play catch up,” he said. “These guys are in midseason form, I’m in preseason. I’m trying to hit the ground running, but I’m feeling good and getting stronger every game.”