Can the Seattle Sounders Be MLS Title Contenders Without Obafemi Martins?

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2016

Sep 5, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins (9) claps toward the crowd after the Sounders beat Toronto FC 2-1 at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders received news over the weekend that no club wants to hear less than a month before the regular season begins. The Sounders are expected to lose their leading scorer from 2015, Obafemi Martins, to Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League. 

The transfer shouldn't come as a major surprise given the recent spending power of the Chinese first division and the history Martins has. Before spending three years in Seattle, Martins bounced around between six different clubs in seven seasons. 

Having Martins stay in Seattle for three seasons has to be judged as a success given the player's propensity to go after a big payday. It must be noted Martins isn't officially gone as of this writing, but all signs are pointing to the transfer happening sooner rather than later. 

Sep 5, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins (9) takes a shot during the first half against Toronto FC at CenturyLink Field. Seattle won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

"I can tell you that Oba is not here with us for this phase of camp," Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey told ESPN's Jeff Carlisle. "We've had an approach from a Chinese club for his services. It could take a while to have that resolved. There's really nothing else we can add at this point, but hopefully we know more by the end of the week."

With the Nigerian forward not around the team at the moment, the Sounders must find a way to replace the 40 goals and 23 assists recorded by Martins in his 72 regular-season matches with the club. Luckily for the Sounders, they have three players ready to take on more of the workload up top. Clint Dempsey, Nelson Valdez and rookie Jordan Morris will be tasked with producing for Sigi Schmid's side as they attempt to hunt down the elusive MLS Cup. 

Morris will be one of the players tasked with replacing Martins.
Morris will be one of the players tasked with replacing Martins.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The impending loss of Martins puts more pressure on the team as a whole as well. The Sounders were already under pressure to win the MLS Cup after their 2015 season ended in disappointing fashion and the rival Portland Timbers captured the crown in December.

Winning in the Western Conference is never an easy task, and that isn't expected to change in 2016 as perennial powers LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have revamped their rosters to contend for a championship once again. Add in the stacked rosters at FC Dallas, Vancouver and Portland and you have a conference that could produce a must-watch contest every weekend.

Seattle's task is not impossible if it loses Martins, but there will be plenty of gaps to fill and questions to answer. The biggest question looming over the Sounders is how they replace the chemistry that Dempsey and Martins built during their time together in Seattle. The cerebral understanding of each other's playing style made Dempsey and Martins such a good strike partnership when they were both healthy. 

Now Dempsey must try to discover a new chemistry with Valdez, Morris and whoever starts next to or behind him in Schmid's formation. The 32-year-old Valdez, who, like Martins, was a footballing vagabond before arriving in Seattle, will get the chance to start right away next to Dempsey. Valdez, who arrived last summer, should feel more comfortable in the league with a full offseason and preseason under his belt. 

But instead of being relied on to relieve Dempsey or Martins, Valdez will now become a focal point of the attack. The potential transfer of Martins also opens up more playing time for Morris and fellow homegrown player Darwin Jones. Both youngsters still need to prove their worth with the first team, but they have shown in the past at other levels that they are capable of finding the back of the net on a regular basis. 

Instead of easing into the lineup during early-season midweek MLS games and U.S. Open Cup contests, the young pair may be asked to provide critical minutes on the pitch as early as Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Club America at CenturyLink Field. 

Forward won't be the only position the Sounders will look to get goals from in 2016, since they have a few players in midfield and defense who produce when called upon. Veterans Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz will be asked to do more moving forward, as well as 20-year-old Cristian Roldan, who could be poised for a breakout season in the middle of the park.

Feb 6, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan (7) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Portland Timbers at Kino North Stadium. Portland won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle also made a vital addition to the squad in defense as it brought in left-back Joevin Jones from the Chicago Fire in January. With Jones and Tyrone Mears bombing forward from the defensive flanks, the Sounders will be able to exploit holes in opposing defenses at certain times of the game. 

Depth was never going to be a major issue for the Sounders entering 2016 with or without Martins. The concerns begin to grow when you look at who fills the positions on the depth chart. As we mentioned above, Morris and Darwin Jones have succeeded at lower levels, but they haven't been tested by the rigors of MLS. There is a good chance they will experience growing pains while Dempsey and Valdez work out the kinks in their new pairing up top. 

But despite all the growing pains that the Sounders could go through at the start of 2016, they still have to be in the championship conversation entering the regular season due to the well-rounded squad Schmid and Lagerway have built.

At a club like Seattle, one player doesn't make or break the team. If every player in the squad chips in to replace the production of Martins, we could see the Sounders near the top of the Western Conference as early as May or June, which would lead us to believe they will be one of the top sides to watch when the postseason rolls around. 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90


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