The Nigerian’s arms flew into the air and slapped down at his hips. He says he “gets along with everyone off the pitch,” but Martins’ face twisted in disappointment and blame. Dempsey, an American icon who once put his fist through a window when left off a starting XI, chased his team-mate and put a finger in his face. Heated words were exchanged. You did not need to be a lip-reader to know tempers were flaring toward red.
They scored 32 of the team’s 66 MLS goals this season. That is nearly fifty per cent of Seattle’s scoring output this term, not counting their 20 assists.
“We have fun out there,” Martins, compact and threatening like a coiled snake on the field, told FIFA.com. “Sometimes we disagree, but show me two players who don’t. We have a connection. If I get the ball, he knows I’ll look for the right pass. I know he will too. Dempsey knows the game.”
It often looks like Dempsey and Martins are playing their own little game, looking only for each other. Buzzing around the attacking third, sniffing openings, they drag defenders out of position. They roam the tight spaces like predators, looking for the smallest pockets or cracks to exploit. “Playing with Oba is like playing pick-up,” said Dempsey, a veteran of three FIFA World Cups™. He is USA’s captain and ranks among the country’s best-ever players. National team coach Jurgen Klinsmann uses words like “hungry” and “driven” to describe him. “The two of us link up and it’s always fun.”
Speaking the same language
Football is a language. As spectators we are drawn to teams and players who communicate most harmoniously, most poetically, most often. The triangles Dempsey and Martins carve with the ball between them seem infinite. They are demanding. Their standards are high.
Martins is 30-years-old and Dempsey 31. They took different paths to the rainy Pacific Northwest, but both were forged in hardship. Martins grew up playing in the crowded streets of Lagos, Nigeria. He left home early, his lightning speed and explosiveness catching the eye in Italy. “It happened so fast, I was dizzy,” Martins said of leaving his family as a teenager and moving to a new continent. Dempsey grew up in rural poverty, the fourth of five children, in the US state of Texas. His father, a carpenter, struggled to shuttle him the long distances to training, to nurture the talent his son showed early. Dempsey’s sister died of a brain aneurysm when the two were only teenagers.
Dempsey’s best moments came in London, at Fulham, where he pushed the modest Cottagers to a UEFA Europa League final and became a club legend. A move to Tottenham Hotspur was a disappointment and so came the big-money transfer back to MLS, where he began his career. Martins threatened to become one of the top strikers of his generation early on, but he ended up wandering Europe. A star-turn at Inter Milan behind him, he moved to Newcastle United in the north of England, then to Rubin Kazan, Birmingham City, and eventually Levante in Spain. Stuck in the quicksand of fading reputation, Martins saw Seattle as a fresh start.
“I’m not as fast as I used to be,” the Nigerian said with a chuckle, but he still leaves defenders in his dust every week. “I like to have the ball at my feet now, to play a little football.” Dempsey continues to live by an old creed: “I play with a lot of heart and I do all I can to help get a win.”
The Sounders’ hit-men were held goalless in the Western Conference final first leg against LA Galaxy at the weekend. But do not bet against the Oba-Dempsey tag-team at home next Sunday with a spot in the league’s one-off championship decider, MLS Cup, on the line. “We just put them together,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. “Practice or game, it doesn’t matter. They know what to do.”