MLS winners and losers: Clint Dempsey shines, Sebastian Lletget injured
After playing an abbreviated schedule last weekend during FIFA's most recent international window, Major League Soccer returns this weekend with a full slate of games. The impact of the international break will linger on by players and their clubs, however. Here are some of the biggest winners and losers as the attention on league play resumes.
Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders/USA:
For a guy who wasn't even supposed to be called in by U.S. coach Bruce Arena after missing eight months because of an irregular heartbeat, scoring four goals in a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama is nothing short of exceptional. It has to help Seattle, too; by his own admission, the 34-year-old wasn't 100 percent when he reported for U.S. duty on March 19. Not only was Dempsey able to go all 90 minutes in both contests, pushing him closer to peak fitness -- he'll also take a ton of confidence back with him to a Sounders team that started the season 1-1-1 after winning MLS Cup last year. That's bad news for MLS defenders in general and Atlanta's in particular, as the expansion side visits CenturyLink Field on Friday night.
Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids/USA:
If anyone ever needed proof that playing in MLS is better than sitting on the bench in a better league, Tim Howard is living proof. Sure, the fact that Middlesbrough backup Brad Guzan stayed in England to welcome his new daughter made U.S. coach Bruce Arena's decision to start Howard in World Cup qualifiers versus Honduras and Panama that much easier. But Howard, who recently returned to the Colorado Rapids' lineup following groin surgery, was probably always going to start over the idle Guzan, who won't get regular games until he moves to Atlanta United in July. Until then, Howard is the undisputed U.S. No. 1.
Kenwyne Jones, Atlanta United/Trinidad and Tobago:
The Premier League veteran was Atlanta's first marquee signing when he agreed to join the club last summer. Few could have predicted then that the mammoth, 6-foot-2 striker wouldn't have a single start to his name three games into the club's maiden season. Part of that has to do with the emergence of the speedy Josef Martinez as coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino's lead striker and the counterattacking style the Argentine manager has employed thus far. Still, starting two games for the "Soca Warriors" -- he went 84 minutes in T&T's upset of Panama on March 24 and played for more than an hour against Mexico four days later -- should boost both his fitness and confidence. And the injury that Martinez suffered playing for Venezuela last week (more on that below) could provide the opportunity the 32-year-old needs to break into United's lineup.
Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers/USA:
Nagbe made his U.S. debut in late 2015, but he had to wait until Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. coach to get his first start, which came in January's scoreless friendly against Serbia.
Nagbe apparently showed well enough in that game that with Borussia Monchengladbach's Fabian Johnson injured, Arena deployed Nagbe in Johnson's left wing spot for last week's high-stakes World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
Nagbe's linking play was overshadowed by Dempsey's hat trick and Christian Pulisic's playmaking, but it was also important in the 6-0 win. It also earned the 26-year-old another start in Tuesday's 1-1 tie in Panama, during which Nagbe's commitment to defensive play -- long a knock on his game -- was more evident than in any of his previous international appearances.
Marco Bustos, Vancouver Whitecaps/Canada:
With new boss Octavio Zambrano watching from the stands in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 22, Canada gutted out a tough 1-1 result against Scotland. One of the few MLS players in the visitors' lineup was 20-year-old attacking midfielder Bustos, who went 90 minutes in the match and narrowly missed scoring his first international goal on a curling first-half effort. Getting a promising youngster that sort of valuable experience in a tough away environment is invaluable for the Canucks, which are trying to restock their roster for the 2022 World Cup cycle under the respected ex-MLS coach.
Laurent Ciman, Montreal Impact/Belgium:
The 2015 MLS Defender of the Year has been a consistent call up for his uber-talented national team since his arrival two years ago. He even started against Italy in the group stage of last summer's European Championship. For the most part, that's been a feather in the Impact's cap. Now the Bleu-blanc-noir must deal with the downside of having a key player compete for his country, as Ciman injured his knee near the end of Belgium's 1-1 World Cup qualifying tie with Greece. Ciman was subsequently held out of Tuesday's friendly against Russia as a precaution, but he'll still miss his club's important Eastern Conference clash in Chicago this weekend.
Giovani Dos Santos, LA Galaxy/Mexico:
Not only was the El Tri veteran unable to play for Juan Carlos Osorio's squad after hurting his hamstring in the Galaxy's March 12 loss to the Portland Timbers, but Mexico won both games without him, beating Costa Rica at Estadio Azteca and then topping Trinidad and Tobago on the road.
Dos Santos returned to training for the Galaxy this week. But his absence from those international victories could make it harder for him to be in the lineup when Mexico reconvenes in June ahead of home qualifiers against Honduras and the United States. After all, the 27-year-old only returned to Osorio's starting lineup in November after skipping last summer's Copa America Centenario.
Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy/USA:
The 24-year-old would probably be leading the winners section had he not picked up a foot injury in the first half of the Yanks' 6-0 win over Honduras on March 24. Not only did Lletget get the starting assignment from former club coach Arena, his fifth-minute strike held on as the winner. But he had to be replaced shortly thereafter following a hard foul by Honduras' Ever Alvarado. At first, word was that Lletget wouldn't be out for long. But on Wednesday, the club announced that Lletget would need surgery, sidelining him for up to six months. That's a hellish blow to a player whose U.S. stock was going through the roof, and to a Galaxy team that will now be without one of its top players for most of 2017.
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United/Venezuela:
The 23-year-old Martinez looked all but unstoppable early this season as the go-to scorer for the hugely impressive expansion side. So perhaps it's fitting that MLS' leading scorer (with five goals from Atlanta's first three games) was sidelined while away with his national team. Martinez, who United recently signed on a permanent basis from Italian club Torino, suffered the strained quad about an hour into Venezuela's 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw against Peru on March 23, forcing him to miss Tuesday 3-1 loss to Chile. He's expected to be out of action for Atlanta for most of the next two months. The good news? Venezuela's next qualifier isn't until August, although the team will play at least one friendly match in June.
Romell Quioto, Houston Dynamo/Honduras:
With three goals in his first three MLS games, the fleet-footed Quioto has been a revelation for the new-look Dynamo since signing from Olimpia in December. Unfortunately for first-year Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera, it doesn't look like the 25-year-old striker will be available for Saturday's visit from the New York Red Bulls after picking up a shoulder injury in the first half against the U.S. "I don't think he's going to be available this week," Cabrera told the Houston Chronicle a day before Quioto didn't dress for Tuesday's stalemate with the Ticos.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.