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Dempsey climbing Audi Player Index

Five Aside
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 By Matt Pentz

Lodeiro's performance vs. 'Caps shows Seattle's MLS Cup defense has life

Clint Dempsey was on the scoresheet as Seattle downed Vancouver 3-0.

SEATTLE -- Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro hasn't been bad in 2017. Often, he's been quite good.

Asked to rate his season to this point, Lodeiro gave himself an "ocho" (eight out of 10). If that feels generous, or overinflated by how settled he feels off the field -- the Lodeiros have bought a house out near Cougar Mountain in the eastern suburbs, and his little boy likes his new preschool -- it is not that far off.

Lodeiro's year has been underwhelming only in contrast to the one that preceded it, when he arrived from Boca Juniors in late July and swept Seattle all the way to the club's first MLS Cup championship. It has been underwhelming only in the context of the burden the club has placed upon him for more than a year now, one that was underlined during Wednesday night's 3-0 rout of first-place Vancouver at CenturyLink Field, when he notched a goal and two assists.

When Lodeiro fires, so do the Sounders. Ahead of Sunday's match at Philadelphia (1 p.m. EST on ESPN/WatchESPN) and with just three matches remaining in the regular season, Seattle's title defense may very well come down to whether or not he can up his game from good to great for a second straight autumn.

Speaking to ESPN FC through a translator at the team facility earlier this week, the Uruguayan international didn't show much sign of strain.

"[I'm] happy with the club," Lodeiro said. "Happy with everything. There are good people and we just feel at home."

He was also candid about the difference between where the Sounders stood a year ago and where they're at currently. Their playoff status may be more secure than it was at the end of last September, seven points clear of the cutoff line and with a manageable stretch run, but prior to Wednesday's win there had just been a different vibe about the team.

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The specifics are hard to put a finger on, and in truth, last year's squad benefits from retrospect given what they'd later accomplish, but Lodeiro's explanation was insightful.

"Things have changed," he said. "There are some important players that aren't with us anymore that were very important in the locker room. We have to come together as a team once again to do what is necessary.

"Last year, the champion was the team. The most important thing was that we were really close inside the locker room. That doesn't mean that this team isn't united. There are just some processes we need to go through to be as strong as we were before."

The loss of influential veterans like Nelson Valdez, Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears and Herculez Gomez has hurt more than one might expect with a cursory look over last year's stat sheet. None of those players alone were irreplaceable, but together they added intangible value to the collective.

It wasn't as though that championship squad was particularly dominant -- especially once Clint Dempsey was ruled out with an irregular heartbeat. Boiling down their game plan was remarkably simple: Fight for every ball, let Lodeiro do his thing in the middle of the field and rely on Jordan Morris to net crucial goals every so often. That unity Lodeiro described helped paper over the team's deficiencies.

"We didn't do anything particularly well," Gomez, who is now an ESPN analyst, told me earlier this year. "We were like the 'Bad News Bears'. But we had the momentum, and it was an individual act of brilliance here and there, or 20 minutes of collective effort, and it snowballed. We turned into this machine that nobody wanted to play."

It's not that these Sounders haven't flashed that fighting spirit. It's that, prior to the Whitecaps match, they lacked the positive momentum -- and Morris, likely out for at least the rest of the regular season with a hamstring injury.

Nicolas Lodeiro
Nicolas Lodeiro was a catalyst to the Seattle Sounders' MLS Cup run in 2016.

They also hadn't found a way to give Lodeiro the creative freedom he so craved late last season. In theory, adding Dempsey back into the fold should've given Lodeiro more room to work by giving defenses another playmaker to worry about. In practice, more often than not, they've gotten in each other's way. To use a basketball analogy, Lodeiro and Dempsey are like a pair of ball-dominant point guards, and there are only so many touches to go around.

Dempsey's return has not only proved detrimental to Lodeiro's time on the ball; it has also shifted him out of position. With Lodeiro most often on the right wing rather than as a central attacker, defenses have found it easier to mark him out of games.

"I've noticed that," Lodeiro said. "I've felt that. Last year, I had more freedom within the team. Now, I have to occupy a [different] position, and that kind of limits me, as well... Rivals can defend me much better when I'm playing a specific position. When I had the freedom before to do whatever I wanted to do with [the ball], it was different."

Wednesday night was illustrative. Finally, coach Brian Schmetzer might have solved the issue that has so vexed Seattle all season. He pushed Dempsey up top as the lone forward in his 4-2-3-1 formation, moving Cristian Roldan up into Dempsey's usual central attacking role. Even if it meant Lodeiro was still out wide, Roldan was so active in making forward runs that the playmaker saw far more of the ball as he had in previous months, cutting inside whenever possible.

The payoff was obvious: the Sounders' front line looked as free and loose as it had in ages, and Lodeiro dished out two assists to go along with his goal midway through the second half.

Lodeiro's numbers have flattened off since his MLS Newcomer of the Year-winning campaign of a year ago, when he tallied four goals and eight assists in just 13 regular-season appearances. Despite playing in 17 more games in 2017, he's managed just one more goal and three more assists.

Yet on Wednesday night, Lodeiro gave a potent reminder of how he can change games when put in a position to succeed. If it was a sign of things to come, Seattle's MLS Cup defense might have some life after all.

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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