Unintentional or not, Dempsey's blow was low

A subplot to the Seattle Sounders FC defeat to Toronto FC on Saturday could be titled: “When A Private Matter Goes Public.”

During the first of a soccer game that often resembled a rugby scrum, Sounders’ midfielder Clint Dempsey was seen slapping Reds defender Mark Bloom below the belt.

Well, sort of seen. Although the referees were oblivious to the incident, Dempsey’s slap — it left Bloom groveling on the ground, looking like a victim of another Dempsey, the late heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey — appeared on the Internet.

Was Clint Dempsey’s action worthy of a suspension? At first glance — after several dozen glances, for that matter — you’d think so. Dempsey’s seemingly cavalier response to bringing an opponent to his knees didn’t help his case, either. He walked away, as if delivering the ultimate foul shot was all in the game.

After the 2-1 defeat, Dempsey was asked about that close encounter of the worst kind.

“To be honest with you, I felt a hand on my back,” he said. “I thought I was hitting his hand away. I understand that maybe I did catch him a little bit. I apologized about that.

“But to me, all I was trying to do was slap his hand from touching my back.”

Dempsey is known more his exquisite footwork than as a hatchet man, but there’s a streak of mean in that 6-foot-1, 170-pound body. In 2006, before he took his talents to the Premier League, Dempsey, then a star for the New England Revolution, was forced to sit out two games for elbowing Kansas City’s Jimmy Conrad during a midair duel for the ball.

Conrad suffered a broken jaw that prevented him from digesting solid food for six weeks. Dempsey was fined $1,000, a slap on the wrist for somebody who had forced an opponent to sip through a straw for a month and a half.

The low blow that circulated around the Internet on Saturday didn’t injure Bloom, and Dempsey’s subsequent apology suggests it was unintentional – and explains his nonchalant reaction.

One thing is certain: Between the replacement refs the league has assigned during a labor stalemate with its full-time officials, and a second consecutive opponent determined to fluster the Sounders, CenturyLink Field fans enticed by “the Beautiful Game” have witnessed games less synonymous with beauty than beastliness.

A week after (not-so) Sporting Kansas City went into a bump-and-grind mode last Saturday, Toronto was whistled for 25 fouls.

“I think everyone was getting frustrated,” said Dempsey. “I think for fans especially, it’s not fun to watch a game with that many stoppages, and also for the spectators at home watching the game. When you see it just being stop and start, stop and start, foul, foul, foul, it’s definitely frustrating for everyone.”

Still, there was some artistry displayed Saturday, and it was contributed by Dempsey. After surrendering two goals that defined the word “preventable,” the Sounders provided some second-half suspense when Dempsey took a pass from Obafemi Martins, in the 68th minute, and rocketed a shot off his right-foot that cleared the bottom right corner.

The goal was Dempsey’s second with the Sounders – he scored his other in the 2013 regular-season finale – and followed up on the assist he contributed last week in a 1-0 victory over Kansas City.

Dempsey’s ballyhooed return to the MLS hasn’t been a total bust, more like a semibust. Given the Sounders’ $24 million investment (his average salary over the course of the three-and-a-half year contract he signed is $6.86 million, surpassing the MLS record annual salary of $6.5 million the Los Angeles Galaxy awarded the retired David Beckham), Dempsey did little with Seattle last season to enhance his reputation as America’s most dynamic soccer force.

A week after turning 31, with an assist on a game-winner and a goal that showcased the power in his right leg, Dempsey’s 2014 season is off and running.

As for the apparent cheap shot to no-man’s land – the land no man can tolerate – his explanation and apology passes the sniff test.

“I understand that maybe I did catch him a little bit.”

Clint, you caught the poor guy more than a little bit, and there was no maybe about it.