Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson have celebrated success with the U.S. national soccer team and are aiming to do the same with Seattle Sounders FC.
They won’t have to wait long for the chance, because coach Sigi Schmid said both are in his plans Friday when Seattle meets Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field with first place in Major League Soccer on the line.
“They’re ready to go,” Schmid said. “We’ll still figure out what part and what role they’re going to play, but they’ll play a role.”
Dempsey and Johnson each started Tuesday, when the U.S. team beat Mexico, 2-0, and clinched qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Now the pair return to Seattle, which has had a season of ups and downs. The Sounders went 0-3-2 over their first five games but have been on a 14-5-2 tear since, including four straight wins.
The run has left Seattle two points back of league-leading RSL, and a win Friday would put the Sounders on top.
“A lot of people were writing us off five games into the season,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “A lot of people are now saying we’re MLS Cup favorites and Supporters’ Shield favorites. Our job is to keep it even: first, qualify for the playoffs; next, try to make it though the first round; then the second round; make it to an MLS Cup. … The team has performed really well (recently). But it really doesn’t mean much unless we make it to the playoffs and then progress.”
The club that finishes with the league’s best regular-season record wins the Supporters’ Shield, which carries benefits beyond bragging rights. The Shield winner qualifies for 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League and is assured of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs – including hosting MLS Cup if it advances that far.
But as Schmid notes, the Sounders don’t have to win the Shield to host MLS Cup – they just need a better record than the Eastern Conference finalist.
“The Supporters’ Shield is something I think the teams always feel good about winning,” he said. “With the unbalanced schedule I think it’s not entirely fair – it’s a little bit tougher sometimes on the stronger conference. But it is what it is. If it’s there, whatever club wins it I think is happy to win it. If you don’t win it, I don’t think you’re going to lose a ton of sleep.”
Still, fans and players like the idea of looking at the MLS standings and seeing no one ahead and 18 clubs behind.
“It’s always better to be up in the standings,” goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said. “It keeps you more confident. It’s more quiet around the team then; you don’t feel that much pressure. We are happy with the situation, but in the end it’s just a picture of now. We know very well it can change pretty quickly. We have a lot of tough games. It starts on Friday.”
Dempsey heads into the match still looking for his first goal or assist after four appearances with the Sounders. However, Johnson returns tied for the team lead with seven goals.
The seventh came in his last appearance with the club – Aug. 31 at Columbus – and it became controversial when he celebrated by rubbing his fingers together and mouthing the words “Pay me.”
Back practicing with the team Thursday for the first time since then, Johnson offered this explanation: “When you work hard in life, sometimes you just want to be rewarded,” he said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to be patient. I guess it was the first thing that came into my mind. But that’s behind me.
“Just for the fans: I’m happy here in Seattle, couldn’t be happier to be in a better professional environment playing with such great players and wonderful organization.”
REAL SALT LAKE (14-8-6; 48 POINTS) AT SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (14-8-4; 46)
7 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: NBCSN. Radio: 97.3-FM, 99.3 (Spanish).
Head to head: RSL leads 6-5-5 across all competitions and swept the previous matches this season, 2-1 and 2-0, both at Salt Lake. RSL is unbeaten in the last six regular-season meetings. Nine of the last 10 have been draws or decided by one goal. The sides have met in the playoffs each of the last two seasons. RSL eliminated Seattle in 2011, Seattle eliminated RSL in 2012. This 17th meeting marks the most the Sounders have played against any Major League Soccer opponent.
Notes: This game pairs the top teams in the MLS Supporters’ Shield race. A win would send the Sounders into the lead. … Seattle has a club-record 12-game home unbeaten streak (9-0-3). RSL is 5-6-3 on the road. … RSL leads the league with 52 goals and has scored multiple goals in 12 of its last 16 games. … U.S. national team members Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson are expected to play for Seattle, and midfielder Kyle Beckerman is back with RSL. … Seattle midfielder Brad Evans and Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio are out with calf injuries. The Sounders took midfielder Steve Zakuani (sports hernia) off the disabled list Thursday, but he is not expected to play. … Mauro Rosales is one assist away from matching Fredy Montero’s club record 33. … The entire stadium will be open, and the club reported ticket sales over 52,000. The Sounders have never lost (7-0-2) before a crowd of more than 40,000. … Seattle defenders Leo Gonzalez and Djimi Traore are one yellow card away from suspension. … The referee is Allen Chapman.
Quotable: “Salt Lake has taken it to us twice, and they’ve done a good job in those two games. I think we need to get a little bit even there. But they’re a quality team. It’s going to be a great game. It’s two days before the Seahawks play, so you’ve got plenty of time to recover and get yourself up for the 49ers-Seahawks game.” — Sounders coach Sigi Schmid
Next: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, at Los Angeles Galaxy.