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Sounders return with Clint Dempsey cleared to practice

File photo (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) — Just 45 days after winning the club's first MLS Cup title, the Seattle Sounders returned to the practice field on Tuesday for the beginning of training camp.

Joining them was star forward Clint Dempsey, cleared for full participation in practice for the first time in five months.

"We've been pleased with his progress. His attitude has been awesome. He's worked really hard. We asked him to do a period of work individually during the offseason and he's now progressed to a point where he is able join the team on a regular basis," Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "We still have some steps to get through, but he's continued to progress, we're happy with his progress and we're happy with his attitude and we're happy with how far he has come and we're excited about what the future may hold."

Dempsey's return to training was another boost for the Sounders, who are still relishing their unexpected title run. Seattle was near the bottom of the Western Conference last July when Sigi Schmid was fired and Brian Schmetzer took over as head coach, starting a run that culminated on a frigid December night in Toronto with the club's first league title.

The championship trophy was rolled out on a cart next to Seattle's practice field Tuesday. Schmetzer, now the permanent head coach, went around shaking the hands of the fans that showed up for the open practice.

But most of the eyes were on Dempsey.

Dempsey missed Seattle's title run last season, sidelined by an irregular heartbeat that required an unspecified procedure to correct.

The team announced Dempsey's medical issue on Aug. 26 and the 33-year-old was ruled out for the rest of the season a month later. Dempsey showed up at a handful of training sessions during Seattle's title run but was always doing limited work on the side. He accompanied the team to Toronto for the title match and had a memorable line during Seattle's parade and championship celebration taking a shot at rival Portland.

Dempsey took part in all drills during Tuesday's practice and showed some of the footwork and flair that has made him one of the top American strikers of his generation. Lagerwey said Dempsey will be closely monitored through the early stages of camp to make sure there aren't any issues that arise. Seattle opens the season on March 4 at Houston.

"The doctors have said it's OK for him to train," Lagerwey said. "We'll continue to check in with them as we continue to progress him back. He's a veteran player. He hasn't played a competitive match in six months. There are real fitness concerns around him getting back into form and sharpness and doing so in a healthy manner. That's what we're going to be monitoring."

A number of key players were not in camp on the first day. Chad Marshall, Jordan Morris and Brad Evans were all with the U.S. national team at its January training camp, while Nicolas Lodeiro was getting an extra few days off before joining the team.

Present but not practicing was goalkeeper Stefan Frei, whose remarkable save on Jozy Altidore's header in extra time of the MLS Cup final got Seattle to penalty kicks. Frei suffered a right ankle injury during the U.S. training camp. While not serious, the injury is significant enough that Lagerwey brought into question whether Frei will be ready for the opener.

"I'm very happy it was nothing serious," Frei said. "I think I was very fortunate; a typical turf injury that could have ended very, very nasty. If you have a small little nick or bruise to take care of now is probably the time to have to deal with it."

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