Major League Soccer has seen its share of high quality strike duos over 20 years.
There have even been striker partnerships that were merely “good” and even a couple of truly sensational ones, productive, classy and electrifying all at once.
But let’s go ahead and start making the case that we are currently watching the best striker partnership that has ever tormented Major League Soccer’s back lines. Because up in Seattle, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are making that case easier and easier to sell.
I mean, have you seen these guys perform once they reach top gear? If not, you should remedy that, and right quick. Because you really are missing something.
Right now, they are both league MVP candidates and a big reason why Seattle is just a tick behind Dallas and Vancouver in the West – but actually ahead of the pack if we order the bunch by points per game. It’s not just the raw numbers either; these two pass the eyeball test, too. After absorbing some early pressure over the weekend at Yankee Stadium, they proceeded to completely take apart NYCFC’s helpless defense in a 3-1 road win. If you watched the match, you know it could have been worse. Seattle put nine shots on target (well above average) and should have gotten a late penalty kick when Martins was taken down inside the penalty area.
(Aside: referee Silviu Petrescu needs a good talking to, having given Martins a ridiculous yellow card for “diving” when no such thing happened. More than any other MLS referee, Petrescu doesn’t like to call fouls, seemingly bent on turning MLS into MMA. He wants the teams to play “tough guy” soccer, and booking Martins when he was legitimately fouled is all the evidence you need that MLS and the league’s referee assigning body really should tell the man to get on board or go somewhere else.)
Dempsey was at his tricks-and-flicks best on the Sounders’ final strike, one of the most well constructed goals you’ll see in MLS this year, an 18-pass beauty. Even that silly field at Yankee Stadium (way too small, the grass way too long) couldn’t bother a Seattle team that had its confidence, thought and passing game cranked up to 11. Dempsey’s sublime flick-on met Martins’ well-placed run and the Nigerian international made his finish past a strangely hesitant Josh Saunders look easy.
It really was the cherry on the parfait for a match that reminded us: Seattle is the defending Supporters Shield winner and U.S. Open Cup champion, and there is zero reason to think that Sigi Schmid’s well-balanced outfit cannot challenge for those titles again in 2015, plus the big prize that has thus far eluded the gang from CenturyLink Field, the MLS Cup.
Dempsey and Martins have a lot to do with that. More to the point, the best strike partnership MLS has ever seen has a lot to do with that.
Dempsey has five goals and four assists through eight matches, which puts him among the league leaders in both categories. Martins has provided an MLS-leading six goals and two assists.
Martins and Dempsey both set up as forwards in the Sounders’ preferred 4-4-2. There have been brilliant playmaker-striker combos in MLS, quite a few in fact, with one finisher to complement a midfield creator. That goes all the way back to the league’s earliest pacesetters, the Marco Etcheverry-Raul Diaz Arce combo that led D.C. United to the inaugural MLS title, and to the sensationally productive Mamadou Diallo-Carlos Valderrama partnership at the ill-fated Tampa Bay. Diallo had 26 goals; Valderrama had a league record 26 assists.
Last year, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan combined for 62 goals and assists en route to the Galaxy’s latest MLS Cup triumph. But Donovan operated out of midfield, so that wouldn’t qualify for our informal list of striker duos.
Those true dual-threat striker tandems have been fewer and farther between. Keane and a fast-rising Gyasi Zardes formed the dangerous strike duo at the StubHub Center last year, and they were certainly a formidable pair. But so much of their success was about Keane’s wise off-the-ball movement.
As a pair, they were nothing like Martins and Dempsey, either one of whom could carry a front line on his own. In tandem, when both are healthy and full of intent, they really are the all-time gold standard of MLS striker combos.
Other productive forward tandems through the MLS years have carried their own unique balance. Think about Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips at New York last year. Henry generally operated as more of a left-sided playmaker who liked to drift into midfield. Wright-Phillips was a classic poacher, mopping up the defensive messes his fabulous French teammate helped create.
Could Wright-Phillips have done the goal-scoring business by himself? We’ll see this year, and he has been a handful for opposing defenses. But the production has fallen off already, and whether he can carry the full weight over the bulk of a full season, the way Dempsey or Martins so obviously can, that’s another story.
Dempsey and Martins are both well-rounded frontrunners, capable of the killer pass, useful hold-up play, creating opportunities off the dribble, unselfish on the whole but ruthless on the finish when the shooting opportunity falls right.
Clearly they are both capable of the highlight-reel strike (especially Martins, who never seems far away from his next Goal of the Year candidate). More significantly, they have both scored important goals.
At their current pace these two would combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 goals. Now we all know injuries happen, and Dempsey will miss matches for the United States’ Gold Cup effort this summer. Still, does anyone doubt that one or both, given good health, could easily round the corner on the 20-goal mark?
If they do, they could set a record for strike duos, surpassing the 40 put up by Chris Wondolowski (27) and Alan Gordon (13) three years ago at San Jose.
Beyond that, we’ve seen some combos reach the 30s, like Keane and Gyasi Zardes did last year (35), but that’s it.
By the way, the Dempsey-Martins combo isn’t necessarily done this year. Martins is 30, still in the sweet spot, where the mind knows and the body still performs at high cadence. Dempsey is 32, starting to turn the corner onto the downslope, a worry exacerbated by the fact that he plays more than half his MLS matches on artificial turf. But he takes care of himself and has that giant inner drive, so there is no reason to believe these two can’t steer the Sounders to great places in 2016, too.
The rest of us can enjoy the ride along the way, taking in the dandies they are sure to produce in bulk, a few more gems like the sweet, sweet tally we saw Sunday in New York.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.