NEW YORK — Even the Greatest Show in MLS can get better. Always. And maybe that understanding is precisely why Seattle’s Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have become the league’s premier spectacle.
They did it again at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night in Seattle 3-1 win over NYCFC. Martins scored with ruthless efficiency twice on the night, including once off a perfectly-weighted backheel pass from Dempsey that made you wonder if the bearded Texan has mastered telepathy. Meanwhile, it was Dempsey who put Seattle up 2-1—and crushed an NYCFC rally—by creating something out of nothing on a play orchestrated by Martins.
Martins now leads the league with six goals this season. Dempsey is tied for second with five (and tied for second in assists with four). Last season they combined for 32 regular-season goals, and they’re on pace for an even bigger year in 2015.
The Martins-Dempsey partnership has gone Next Level, and that’s not by accident.
We have seen high-priced attacking talent come into MLS before, sometimes on the same team. But chemistry doesn’t develop instantly, and you can’t acquire it just by showing up at practice every day.
You have to work at it. You have to understand that no matter how much success you’ve had in Europe, no matter how much you operate on instinct, you can always improve, always be coachable. Which is why, after Sunday night’s game, my first stop after the game wasn’t at the locker of Dempsey or Martins, but rather that of another face familiar to long-time MLS fans.
Ante Razov spent 14 years in MLS and is the No. 4 all-time goal-scorer in league history with 114 regular-season tallies. In January, Seattle named Razov an assistant coach whose focus would be on the team’s forwards, and not just the young ones. On a Seattle trip in early March, I’d been told the players had developed a real respect for Razov as a coach with insight. And so I asked him about the work he has been doing with Dempsey and Martins.
“Once or twice a week we get together and we do different kinds of movements and finishing, with actual thought into what their strengths are and also some of the things maybe we could push them into improving on,” Razov said. “That’s been my responsibility, and it’s been very enjoyable. They’re obviously two big players, but they’ve embraced me, and they’re a pleasure to work with.”
“They’ve obviously both played at the highest level. So they see the game in different ways where many players in this league don’t,” Razov continued. “They have the speed of thought, the confidence. They know that defenders are afraid of them, and even on days when defenders go after them it’s just a matter of time. It’ll be one too late, or one too early, and they’ll combine, they’ll find each other. They have a really good relationship, and in front of goal they’re devastating.”
But Razov isn’t just rolling out the balls in practice.
“I’ve come in and I’ve asked them to shoot more,” he explained. “Their shooting percentage is off the charts in terms of shots on goal and the amount of goals they’ve scored. It’s actually unheard of, the percentage they scored at last year. I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to score at that clip we need to shoot more, and shoot more from distance.’ So we started working on some of those things. A lot of their combinations are in close, but if we can add another element where we can now from distance pull the defenders even farther out from goal, those spaces open up in behind for them, and that’ll make a difference for us.”
Given what Dempsey and Martins have accomplished in European soccer, and given the millions of dollars they’re earning in MLS, some might think they wouldn’t need to be open to coaching, especially when none of those coaches have matched their achievements at the game’s highest levels. But Razov says otherwise.
“They’re absolutely coachable,” he said. “Top players always want to be coached. Yes, they’re big personalities for sure, but they have respect for the process and for the ideas that we throw at them. Sometimes maybe it doesn’t click right away, but I ask a lot of questions of them. Ask questions, ask questions. And as a former striker we’re seeing the same things, and we kind of get at it.”
“To be fair, the feedback is very open, and I’ve been very open with them. It’s been fantastic.”
These days, the Seattle coaching staff seems to be striking the right balance. Soccer can be a simple game, and Dempsey and Martins are inventive players who’ve figured out on their own how “to conjure up magical stuff,” said head coach Sigi Schmid, who added that he’s sometimes dumbfounded by what his two stars do in practice together.
But they’re still coachable, and the coaches still coach. And maybe that gives you an idea why they’re the Greatest Show in MLS right now.