John McGrath

McGrath: Always smart choice for Seattle to play Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins on ‘Decision Day’

SEATTLE — Borrowing another idea from the English Premier League, Major League Soccer finished its regular season Sunday with what was billed as “Decision Day.”

All five Western Conference games were coordinated to start — and finish — around the same time, a concept meant to create suspense, enhance speculation and prevent players from those mysteriously vague injuries that cause them to sit out regular-season finales in other sports.

That was the thinking, anyway. At CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Sounders were fighting for their playoff lives, Decision Day was more like Incision Day: Surgically precise through the first 20 minutes, the Sounders coasted to a 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake, earning home-field — oops, home-pitch — advantage for a loser-out game Wednesday against Los Angeles.

The only consequential decision Seattle coach Sigi Schmid had to make on Decision Day was when to give star forward Clint Dempsey a chance to rest his legs. Realizing the Sounders would face another elimination game in the middle of the week, Schmid chose the 65th minute, by which time Dempsey had shown he was the most skilled man on the field — thanks in part to fellow designated player Obafemi Martins, the second most skilled man on the field.

“That’s why they’re here,” said defender Brad Evans, the Sounders captain. “That’s why they’re the DPs, and why they get paid big bucks. You can say that for a lot of teams in the league, but it’s great to have them on your side, especially on a night like tonight.”

The game was in the fifth minute when it turned on a cross from Martins to Dempsey, whose sliding kick off his right foot gave the Sounders a 1-0 lead. And though Dempsey would provide an assist on Marco Pappa’s goal before scoring for the second time — two goals and an assist in the first 20 minutes, that’s why he’s paid the big bucks — the contest essentially was settled when Martins hooked up with Dempsey.

“Those two guys have been phenomenal together,” said Schmid. “I sometimes don’t keep up with the stats stuff, but I think our record is good each time they get a point in a game.”

For the record, the Sounders are 10-1-3 when Dempsey either scores a goal or is credited with an assist, and 10-1-3 when Martins either scores a goal or is credited with an assist.

The problem for the Sounders this season — and let’s face it, the reason they faced elimination Sunday — is that injuries, a suspension and international obligations often prevented Dempsey from being on the same page at the same time with Martins.

Dempsey left in mid-June to play on the U.S. men’s national team, only to hurt his back upon returning. Martins missed significant time with a leg injury.

The Sounders’ nine-game unbeaten streak can be traced to the fact Dempsey and Martins have been at something close to full strength for the past two months. The duo understood the win-and-you’re-in stakes at play Sunday.

“It’s a game we needed to go out and attack,” said Dempsey. “You want to try to take the game early and not sit there in the 70th minute or the 80th minute trying to get a goal.

“We went out with the right mentality. It was good to get the early lead. It gave us confidence.”

Next up: The Galaxy. The team that beat the Sounders in last year’s playoffs because it held the road-goal advantage over two games.

The format will be more conventional Wednesday — score more times than the opponent.

If Dempsey and Martins team up early, the Sounders figure to be going places in the conference semifinals this postseason.

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