SEATTLE -- Thunderdome was quiet now. It was half an hour after the final whistle when Seattle Sounders majority owner Joe Roth sauntered onto the playing surface at CenturyLink Field and approached the gladiator his club is paying $24 million over the next three and a half seasons.
Clint Dempsey was wearing a giant ice pack on one leg and a smile after the Sounders' 1-0 victory over the archrival Portland Timbers. It had been a brutal game at times -- "a man's game," as Dempsey put it -- but in the end, in a match Seattle was under heavy pressure to win, the Sounders found a goal through a second-half Eddie Johnson header to delight the crowd of 67,385, the second-largest standalone attendance in MLS history.
After giving Dempsey a bro-hug, Roth pulled out an artifact from Dempsey's home debut and showed it to his star: A two-dollar bill bearing (on the front) the printed hashtag #DEUCEDOLLARS and the outline of a soccer field, and (on the back) the printed face of Dempsey (above "In God We Trust") and NOW HERE. A Sounders fan had been handing the bills out in envelopes before the game outside the stadium.
Dempsey took a closer look. "Is that a real two-dollar bill?" he asked.
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It sure looked like it. "Maybe you can pay me in these," Dempsey joked to Roth, and everyone laughed. That would be a tall stack of #DEUCEDOLLARS.
Dempsey Mania has taken over Seattle, and yet the vibe is hardly just about the U.S. national team captain who signed here earlier this month. This city is in love with the Sounders as a team -- the giant pregame fan tifo included four players not named Dempsey -- and attending a rivalry game here doesn't just feel major league for the United States; it feels major league for any soccer game in any country in the world.
"It's awesome to play here in front of 67,000," Dempsey said afterward. "It's what you dream about as a kid. Having their support helps you. They're the 12th man. They help us keep going and stay confident and keep pushing. I think that's what helped us get the goal."
Or, as Seattle coach Sigi Schmid put it, "Phenomenal. It was fantastic when you walked out there as the teams marched out for the national anthem. You saw everything full. I still pinch myself every time I see that. It's unbelievable."
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The match itself wasn't exactly a work of art. Rivalry games rarely are. Portland was slightly better in a scoreless first half, and its own designated player signing, the Argentine Diego Valeri, was the best player on the field. Valeri hit the post once, and he had four remarkable passes that could have resulted in goals. (On one, Ryan Johnson got stoned on a breakaway by Michael Gspurning.)
But in the second half Seattle had the advantage as the game started to get more physical. The big moment came just 10 minutes after the break, when Schmid substituted Mauro Rosales for Shalrie Joseph, who'd been hobbled and ineffective. Rosales had a near-instant impact, firing the through-ball that Johnson ran onto for the free kick that led to his goal.
Moments of the second half got ugly. Portland defender Pa-Modou Kah should have seen a straight red card on two separate occasions: once when he took out Johnson from behind, and once when he kneed a prone Johnson in the head. (The MLS Disciplinary Committee will no doubt be handing Kah a suspension this week.)
As for Dempsey, he had his moments, showing enough pieces of flair to make an Office Space restaurant manager happy: flicks, scissor-kick attempts, no-look passes, even "a little ninja kick" in front of the goal, as he put it later. Yes, Dempsey is still looking for his first goal after three games in a Seattle uniform, but he also has two wins in those three games, which is something in itself.
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"All in all, I'm getting good looks, putting people through," he said. "It's just a matter of time before the goals and assists start coming, but I'm very happy with the touches I was getting. But more importantly, I'm happy with the way the team played and getting three points. I don't care if I score at all as long as we keep winning."
Said Schmid about his star, "He's still a little bit in preseason. I thought his energy was good until about maybe with 10 to 12 minutes to go in the game. At that point he was pretty tired ... He's still gaining his sharpness, still gaining his fitness, but it's definitely coming along. It was a hard game for him today. The stats say he got fouled four times, but I thought he got fouled more often."
The race in MLS's Western Conference is wide open, but no team has a higher upside than Seattle, especially if the Sounders can get all their top players on the field at the same time. (Obafemi Martins missed Sunday's game with an ankle knock.) Due to quirky scheduling, Seattle has played just 23 league games, fewer than any other MLS team, and if it can make the most of its games in hand the standings logjam might not be one much longer. Consider: Seattle has the ninth-most points in the league but the third-highest points per game.
With the big-money signings of Dempsey and Martins, there's also more pressure than ever on Seattle to win its first MLS Cup title. But if that can happen, Dempsey will be earning every bit of his many #DEUCEDOLLARS.