Sandy • Clint Dempsey stood on the turf inside CenturyLink Field last Aug. 3, donning a gray hoodie. When he eventually unzipped it, that familiar lime-green look cemented his shocking move home to Major League Soccer and to the Seattle Sounders. It was the largest piece to Seattle’s puzzle, the most pronounced transfer in the league since the arrival of David Beckham in 2007.
The Sounders were soaring with six weeks remaining in 2013, with eyes on the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the Western Conference title and even the MLS Cup. But after Seattle’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Sept. 13, those hopes cascaded. The Sounders went 0-4-3 in their last seven-regular season games, dropping to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference postseason picture. They eventually beat Colorado 2-0 in the first-round matchup, but conceded five goals in their Western Conference semifinal series loss to rival Portland.
It was obvious with the core of Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Lamar Neagle and DeAndre Yedlin was solid, but even more obvious was the reality that MLS’ most-popular club needed significant boosts across the board.
“Seattle retools every year,” RSL defender Chris Wingert said. “Every year they get huge-named, awesome players. It’s just how they do it, it’s why they’ve been so successful.”
Quite on point. RSL will see those fortified spots first hand in Saturday afternoon’s nationally-televised match at Rio Tinto Stadium as the top two teams in the West battle for first place.
The modifying started when Seattle traded for former Columbus Crew center back Chad Marshall in exchange for allocation money and a third-round draft pick. It then picked up former Chicago Fire winger Marco Pappa after the 26-year-old Guatemalan re-entered the MLS Allocation process after a few seasons playing in the Netherlands. Mexican International and World Cup veteran Gonzalo Pineda impressed after a preseason trial to add bite to the midfield. And the club traded for Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei after Michael Gspurning flamed out due to significant struggles in 2013.
Throw in the acquisition of noted MLS goal-scorers Kenny Cooper and Chad Barrett and instantly the questions of well-roundedness and depth were answered in a span of a few months.
“They went and looked and saw that they were very competitive — a good team — a team that was going to be in the playoff picture,” said RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy. “But for a club like that, a big club, one of the flagship clubs of the league, on a team that throws around a lot of money, championships are probably ultimately their goal and what matters to them.
“They identified a few spots that they really needed, some big-time proven players,” he added.
The Sounders delivered.
Marshall has been a revelation anchoring the back line, while Pineda leads the team in assists this season. Dempsey and Martins have combined to net 17 league goals so far in 2014, but Barrett, Pineda, Pappa and Cooper have provided versatility in the Seattle attack combining for 13 goals and 13 assists.
“They added good soccer players, good soccer minds,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “We have to be aware of many players out on the field now, not just zeroing in on a few.”
As most around MLS would concur, Marshall’s addition has been one of the primary factors in Seattle leading the race for this year’s Supporters’ Shield at 41 points through 21 matches and a league-high 13 wins.
Wingert was Marshall’s roommate when the two played together in Columbus in 2004 and 2005. He’s not surprised by the affect of the former MLS Defender of the Year.
“He just needed a little bit of a new start, somebody to give him a little kick in the a--, and I think him already having played for Sigi [Schmid], they get along well,” Wingert said, adding, with “him being up in that environment and being in front of all those fans, it’s no surprise that he’s having such an outstanding year.”
The good news coming out of Seattle hasn’t relented. The Sounders qualified for their fifth U.S. Open Cup final in six years in their 6-0 romp over Chicago Wednesday and recently announced the reported $4 million sale of the 21-year-old Yedlin to English Premier League’s Tottenham once the MLS season ends.
It’s another banner season in the Emerald City. Seattle has bolstered its already-imposing lineup in order to remain in the conversation for all three of the league’s trophies.
Seattle Sounders at RSL
O Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
TV » NBC Sports Network
A look at the Sounders
2009 season • 12-7-11, U.S. Open Cup champions, lost in West semifinals
2010 • 14-10-6, U.S. Open Cup champions, lost in West semifinals
2011 • 18-7-9, U.S. Open Cup champions, lost in West semifinals
2012 • 15-8-11, U.S. Open Cup runners-up, lost in West finals
2013 • 15-12-7, lost in third round of U.S. Open Cup, lost in West semifinals
2014 • 13-6-2, league-leading 41 points through 21 matches
Center back Chad Marshall
One goal, two assists in 18 matches
Acquired from Columbus on Dec. 12, 2013, in exchange for allocation money and a third-round SuperDraft pick.
Winger Marco Pappa
Three goals, two assists in 19 matches
Acquired through MLS allocation process, selected by Seattle on Jan. 29.
Midfielder Gonzalo Pineda
Three goals, six assists in 19 matches
Signed with Seattle on March 5.
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei
Seven shutouts, 67 saves in 21 matches
Acquired from Toronto FC in exchange for 2015 SuperDraft pick on Dec. 10, 2013.
Forward Kenny Cooper Three goals, four assists in 18 matches
Acquired from FC Dallas in exchange for Adam Moffat on Dec. 13, 2013.
Forward Chad Barrett
Four goals, one assist in 16 matches
Acquired in Stage 2 of MLS Re-Entry Draft on Dec. 18, 2013.