Clint Dempsey - Seattle Sounders - April 29, 2017
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Stejskal: Dempsey decision looms | Year of the Newcomer | Nikolic's hot run

The Seattle Sounders will have a decision to make on Clint Dempsey this winter.

Sounders GM and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com this week that Dempsey’s contract is not guaranteed for 2018, and that Seattle will have an option to bring him back on a Designated Player deal next season.

Dempsey, who turned 34 in March, missed the second half of 2016 after he was diagnosed with a heart condition. He returned to action in time for the start of this season and hasn’t missed much of a beat, leading the club with four goals and adding one assist in 11 regular season games heading into Saturday’s nationally-televised clash against the rival Portland Timbers (2:30 pm ET | FOX and FOX Deportes in the US, TSN2 in Canada).

He’s also enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with the US national team, recording a hat trick in the USMNT’s 6-0 Hexagonal win against Honduras on March 24 before scoring again in the USA’s 1-1 qualifying draw at Panama on March 28. It’d be a shock if Dempsey – who started for the US in both of their March matches – isn’t called to the US squad for the upcoming friendly against Venezuela on June 3 and subsequent qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and at Mexico on June 8 and June 11.

While Dempsey has played well enough individually, the Sounders haven’t gotten off to a great start in 2017. Their back line has been decimated by injuries, and their attack – though it has shown promise at certain points and leads MLS by a wide margin in shots off the woodwork – hasn’t quite clicked. Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro haven’t jelled like they did in even their limited time together before Dempsey was diagnosed with his heart issue in 2016, something that’s contributed to Seattle’s disappointing start.

All of that will undoubtedly go into consideration as to whether the Sounders pick up Dempsey’s option for 2018. His salary will certainly play a role, as well. According to the MLS Players’ Union, Dempsey will pull in nearly $3.9 million in 2017, making him the ninth-highest paid player in the league. Lagerwey wouldn’t comment on what Dempsey’s salary would be in 2018 if the Sounders do pick up his option, but he did say – unsurprisingly – that he would maintain his DP status if Seattle exercise the option.

In the event that Seattle don’t pick up his deal, Dempsey – as a player over the age of 28 with at least eight years of MLS service – would be eligible for MLS free agency. With the World Cup on tap for next summer and Dempsey having repeatedly spoken of his desire to play in Russia, he'd be the highest-profile player ever to hit the MLS free agency market.  

Year of the Newcomer

2017 is quickly becoming the year of the newcomer in MLS.

A quick glance at the top of the statistical charts – where first-year Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic leads the league with 11 goals in 13 games and new Toronto FC midfielder Victor Vazquez is pacing MLS with eight assists in 12 matches – bears that out, as does this table compiled by our own Ben Baer:

Six of the 10 players on that list – Nikolic, Vazquez, Romain Alessandrini, Romell Quioto, Yamil Asad and Alberth Elis – are in their first year in MLS. Another four newcomers – Ibson, Mohammed Abu, Haris Medunjanin and Bastian Schweinsteiger – rank in the top-six in the league in usage rate, which measures how involved a player is in his team’s passing game.

The sample size is still pretty small, but there haven’t been this many newcomers on either of those lists since the Targeted Allocation Money era was established in the summer of 2015. Just three newcomers made the top-10 in non-penalty goals and assists per 90 last year. Five managed the feat in 2015, but three of those players – Gio dos Santos, Didier Drogba and Kwadwo Poku – played fewer than 1,000 minutes.

More newcomers have been signed to Designated Player or TAM contracts this year than ever before, but the phenomenon isn’t solely a matter of volume. Of the 37 newcomers who have been signed to DP or TAM deals for this year, I’d consider at least 24 to be an early success. That hit rate is about 10 percent higher than what we saw in 2016 – when 16 of 28 newcomers signed to DP or TAM deals panned out – and roughly 20 percent higher than in 2015, when only 14 of 32 such players could reasonably be considered MLS successes.

So, what gives? Why have teams been more successful at bringing in MLS newcomers this year?

The main reason is obvious: Money.

Thanks to TAM, MLS teams now have more money to spend than ever before. Since it was introduced nearly two years ago, the mechanism has given each club an extra $1.2 million to put into their roster. Many have taken advantage, with Toronto adding Vazquez to a DP trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, Chicago adding Nikolic, Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho to a group that already included David Accam and Michael de Leeuw and Houston acquiring Quioto and Elis while retaining Cubo Torres just this season alone. 

“The TAM money is having a real impact,” said Lagerwey. “The salary cap’s gone up 40 percent since the summer of 2015 [if TAM is counted as part of the cap]. That’s only two years and, relatively speaking, that’s a big impact. That money’s gone towards a lot of these guys from outside the league and I think that they’ve had impactful half seasons and full seasons.”

With more money at stake on each signing, teams have also been upping the amount of resources they’re pouring into their scouting departments. Portland, Seattle, Toronto and LA have a few of the more robust operations in the league, while other clubs – including Real Salt Lake, Columbus Crew SC and Chicago, to name a few – have increased their spending on scouting since TAM came into existence. The investment is starting to pay off with higher-quality signings.

“I think it’s down to better scouting and recruiting,” Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez said when asked for his thoughts on why so many newcomers have found success this year. “I think teams are just better [at that]. They’ve applied more resources, they’re more diligent and more precise in what they’re seeking. So I think our overall league-wide success rate, our strike rate, is higher, but I think it’s the work being done in scouting and recruitment that’s a big part of it.”

“I do think league-wide, teams are really upping the ante in terms of player scouting and player identification,” added Lagerwey.

There’s little arguing that TAM and more investment in scouting have raised the level of the league. We’ve already seen that with this year’s solid crop of newcomers (many of whom wouldn’t have been signed without TAM), and I expect the trend will only continue when the secondary transfer window opens in July.

Nikolic erasing painful history in Chicago

Kennedy Igboananike. Gilberto. Juan Luis Anangono. Sherjill MacDonald. Federico Puppo. Nery Castillo.

Twenty-four total goals. Thirteen assists. One playoff game.

Of the myriad reasons why the Chicago Fire have been among the worst teams in MLS over the past seven years, their abject failure in signing star strikers to Designated Player contracts perhaps stands in the starkest relief. With the possible exception of Igboananike, who had 11 goals and four assists in 49 games with the Fire, all of Chicago’s DP forwards have been a massive disappointment. Two of them – Puppo and Castillo, whose MLS debut was marked by ill-fated mid-game fireworks – didn’t even score a single goal for the Fire.

They’ve eaten into the club’s cap space, prevented the team from chasing other DPs and generally served as a yoke on any chance they’ve had at MLS success. It’s been brutal – but it finally looks like it’s changed.

Nemanja Nikolic, signed to a DP deal this winter from Polish club Legia Warsaw, has started his MLS career in fantastic fashion, tallying 11 goals and one assist in his first 13 matches. Even if he fails to score another goal all year, he’ll have recorded easily the best season by a striker occupying a DP slot in Fire history. He’s bagged seven goals in his last six games, and his arrival – along with those of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho – has been a huge factor in Chicago’s hot start which has seen them win four in a row.

“He’s had a very direct impact on our success,” said Rodriguez.

For Nikolic, who spoke with former Sporting Kansas City striker, fellow Hungarian and friend Krisztian Nemeth about MLS before signing with Chicago in December, his strong start is no surprise. The 29-year-old has found the back of the net at an absurd rate at every stop in his career, scoring 80 goals in 109 games in his last three-and-a-half seasons in Hungary and Poland – good for 0.82 goals per 90 minutes.

He’s continued that in Chicago, though it’s probably a bit unrealistic to expect him to maintain his current pace.

“My job was to do the same things that I did in my previous club, to score goals,” Nikolic told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Tuesday. “I am happy that I can do the same things like in Poland last year or in Hungary [before that], so I am happy it’s like this, but we are just in the beginning. We are in a good way right now, but we need to follow with the same intensity, the same focus and I hope that we will make something really good this year.”

The focus has rightly been on his strike rate, but Nikolic’s solid play has helped open things up for his Fire teammates, too. A hard runner – Rodriguez said he’s routinely in the top-three among Fire players in ground covered per game – Nikolic occupies both center backs when he stays central, and creates space in the middle for David Accam, Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac when he flares wide.

Accam in particular has benefitted from Nikolic’s movement and ability to occupy opposing backlines, recording six goals and four assists in 12 appearances – including four goals and two assists in his last four games – to get off to the best start of his Fire career.

The Hungarian, who, it should be noted, missed several excellent opportunities in Chicago's 1-0 win on Saturday at D.C., has already made a strong impression in Chicago. He’s reversed the club’s bothersome trend of failed DP strikers, and looks like he’s on track to play a big role in ending their streak of missing the playoffs, too. 

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