Dempsey raring to go as Sounders eye MLS repeat

Rob Woollard
Clint Dempsey (L) of Seattle Sounders fights for the ball with Eric Alexander of Houston Dynamo in the first half, at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas, on November 21, 2017

Clint Dempsey is looking forward to playing a leading role as the Seattle Sounders prepare to revisit history in a repeat Major League Soccer Cup final showdown against Toronto FC on Saturday.

Twelve months after stunning Toronto in a penalty shoot-out to lift the MLS crown for the first time, Seattle will again line up against their Canadian rivals as the curtain comes down on the North American season.

A year ago, USA international Dempsey was a frustrated spectator as Seattle ground out a 0-0 draw before prevailing on spot-kicks.

The diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat earlier in 2016 forced the former Fulham and Tottenham striker into an extended spell on the sidelines with some wondering if his health would ever allow him to return.

Fast-forward 12 months, however, and the 34-year-old Texan is desperate to help Seattle retain their crown once more at Toronto's 30,000-capacity BMO Field.

"It's tough to be on the sideline and not on the field battling with your teammates," Dempsey said this week as he reflected on last year's final.

"But in saying that, they fought hard all through the playoffs, they deserved to be in the final and then they fought hard in the final...But I'm happy to be playing with the team this time and hopefully play a part in it."

Dempsey's presence provides Seattle with a proven cutting edge in attack, a year after they went 120 minutes in the 2016 final without registering a shot on goal.

The arrival this season of Spanish forward Victor Rodriguez has also given Seattle a more potent look while Will Bruin found the net 13 times in 24 starts after signing from Houston in the close season.

- Scoring groove -

"In terms of depth, I feel like there’s a lot here," Dempsey said. "I think with the weapons that we have, we should be able to create chances. But it's a matter of doing it, it’s not talking about it."

A 5-0 aggregate victory over Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference finals suggests Seattle have got into a scoring groove at the right time.

Nevertheless, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer is adamant that Toronto, who had the best regular season in MLS, hold the edge for Saturday's final.

"Toronto is the home team, they are the favorites, they are the ones playing in front of their fans," Schmetzer told reporters on a conference call.

"We will just do the best we can and try and match up and give everybody a good final."

Schmetzer's caution is justifiable. Toronto, too, have improved as an attacking unit this season, lengthening the odds on another scoreless draw this year.

Toronto averaged 2.2 goals per game in the regular season, scoring 74 times in 34 matches, an improvement of 23 goals on their 2016 total of 51. It is the second highest goals tally in MLS history, behind Los Angeles Galaxy's total of 85 in 1998.

"I think we have evolved as a group, we have more ways that we can win games than we did last year," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. "This year I think we have shown an ability through different ways to get results and score goals.

"To me that is the difference we feel like we can gain an edge in more than just one way where as last year we had a pretty precise vision in order to give us the greatest margin to win."

Toronto striker Jozy Altidore, meanwhile, doesn't care where the goals come from -- as long as he is celebrating the first MLS Cup win by a Canadian team on Saturday.

"I would love to try and make a difference, I think every player would love to make the difference, it's a final," Altidore said.

"But at this point, it doesn't matter how we win it just matters that we win."