Whether Thursday night was the informal start of Clint Dempsey's farewell tour or simply the start of Dempsey's quest for a title he can call his own, the Seattle Sounders striker kicked things off in style.
The Sounders missed Dempsey's attacking influence in a goalless first leg in Vancouver, and though it took him a half to really get going, the 34-year-old eventually found his rhythm and flashed his brilliance in the 56th minute with a clever cut-back and finish to cap a beautiful passing sequence.
If his first goal was a snapshot of his signature skill, Dempsey's second finish showed off his trademark poacher's nose for goals. Sounders midfielder Victor Rodriguez hit a hard cross to the back-post that looked as though it was over hit, but Dempsey's uncanny radar had him racing for the back post, slipping behind the Whitecaps defense to meet Rodriguez's ball for the goal that effectively put the series to bed.
Perhaps it was fitting that Dempsey's performance came with former Sounder Fredy Montero on the opposite side. It was Montero who once led the Sounders attack, and it was Montero who never quite delivered in the big matches when Seattle needed him the most. On Thursday, Sounders fans were reminded that those days of wishing they had a big-game scorer to depend on are over. They have one in Dempsey, and they should enjoy him while they still can.
Dempsey was the star of the night, but Seattle's Cascadia triumph was very much a group effort. Cristian Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro stepped into the deep-lying central midfield roles to offset the Sounders losing Osvaldo Alonso to an injury setback, and the tandem helped control the flow in midfield, while also helping neutralize a largely ineffective Yordy Reyna. Nouhou Tolo was outstanding at left back, combining with Joevin Jones to dominate the left side of the field. Then there was Victor Rodriguez, who came on and provided a much-needed attacking spark to help complement Dempsey's quality and make up for the lost production caused by Roldan and Lodeiro's increased defensive responsibilities.
Seattle's reward is not only a return to the Western Conference finals, but also a sorely-needed break almost three weeks long to recover and prepare for the winner of the Portland-Houston series. No team left in the playoffs could use that time off more than the Sounders, who could welcome back regular starters Jordan Morris, Alonso and Gustav Svensson from injuries.
As much as the Sounders may not have looked like defending champions in the Whitecaps series, a 19-day break could definitely help Brian Schmetzer's team get healthy and closer to looking like the team that won last year's MLS Cup final. Not to take anything away from the players who helped eliminate the Whitecaps, but the Sounders will need to be much closer to full strength to have a real chance of repeating.
The Sounders may not have entered the playoffs as favorites to survive the West, but now things are lining up in their favor. Top seed Portland has been hit hard by injuries, including the loss of key midfielder Diego Chara for the remainder of the playoffs. The Houston Dynamo just might have the weapons to capitalize on the Timbers' injury woes, but they have also lost a key player in goalkeeper Tyler Deric, who has been suspended indefinitely for a domestic violence incident.
The Timbers are still heavily favored to advance when the teams meet on Sunday, and if they do beat the Dynamo, it will set up a playoff series for the ages. The Sounders and Timbers haven't faced off in the playoffs since 2013, Caleb Porter's first season in charge of the Timbers. Portland won that series convincingly, with a hobbled Dempsey largely ineffective in his first playoff run as a Sounder.
Four years later, both teams have an MLS Cup to their names, and there probably isn't a team Dempsey would rather beat on the way to another MLS Cup than the Timbers, a team Sounders fans despise, and a team Dempsey has made a habit of scoring against.
The Sounders won't be looking that far ahead just yet. For now, they will look to rest, recover and get ready for the next step in their title defense. A title defense that features something the 2016 champion Sounders didn't have, a healthy and motivated Clint Dempsey.
We were reminded once again on Thursday just how special that can be.