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U.S. Men's National Team

A closer look at Dempsey's move to Seattle, and why he is returning to MLS now

DempseySeattle (Getty)

By IVES GALARCEP

When Clint Dempsey left Major League Soccer almost seven years ago, he left the league in a hurry to get away. Playing for a New England team with a notoriously cheap owner, that didn’t exactly draw a ton of fans, and in a league where players had little control over their futures, Dempsey couldn’t have been blamed if he kissed the ground at Heathrow Airport the first time he arrived after his $4 million transfer to Fulham.

Sure, Dempsey’s move was also about taking his talents to the biggest league in the world, and catapulting his salary into the rare air of millionaires, but it wasn’t exactly tough for Dempsey to leave behind a situation that had grown extremely frustrating for him. A situation so uncomfortable that, even years later, you could hear the disdain in Dempsey’s voice when discussing his time in the league.

So why would Dempsey come back to MLS? And now, at the age of 30, when he could still put in a few more years in the English Premier League, or some other quality European League that could afford him a chance at his dream of playing in the UEFA Champions League? He is returning because, among other things, the league he is returning to, and team he is joining, is a country mile away from the ones he left in 2006.

Think about his recent trip to Seattle for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s World Cup qualifier vs. Panama. he walked the streets of Seattle during a Sounders game and got a taste of just how much passion there is for the Sounders, and how big a presence MLS has in that city. It was something he never experienced before in America, and led him to state he felt like he was in another country.

Then you have Seattle’s owners, who went out of their way to flex their financial muscles and show Dempsey that they would move heaven and earth, and shatter the league’s transfer and salary records to bring him in. They showed him just how important he was, and that they would spare no expense to make their team better.

Again, a completely different MLS experience to the one Dempsey grew familiar with seven years ago,  when his relationship with MLS and the New England Revolution soured amid rejected transfer offers and what Dempsey felt was an unwillingness to consider his wishes.

For that reason it had to take Dempsey some convincing, and it couldn’t have hurt to have one of his closest friends in the game, Eddie Johnson, on the Sounders. Johnson had spoken to Dempsey about his amazing time in Seattle before, about the amazing crowds and impressive owners. And how the Sounders helped resurrect a once-floundering career for Johnson.

To be clear, it is unlikely Dempsey makes his way to MLS if Tottenham had big plans for him in the upcoming season, but he faced an uncertain season ahead with Spurs unless a team came in with a bid that made sense. English Premier League teams don’t generally make a habit of spending north of $8 million on 30-year-old players, and a bigger question for Dempsey was whether joining some bottom half of the table team in some part of England outside London was really all that appealing.

When Seattle stepped forward with a big-boy bid, the largest transfer fee ever paid by MLS, it was a game-changer, and a power move few (including myself) could have imagined at this point. It shouldn’t have been that surprising that the Sounders could flex that kind of financial muscle. Not with Paul Allen part of the ownership group, and not with some of the largest soccer crowds in the world making their way to see Seattle play.

This is where Dempsey was forced to make a tough decision. Would he stay with Tottenham, a team set to sell Gareth Bale and establish a huge transfer war chest to revamp the roster with more challengers to Dempsey’s minutes, or would he come back to MLS a few years earlier than he probably he ever imagined?

To some, returning to MLS might seem like a cop-out, like giving up on a dream, but consider Dempsey’s options. In order to have a real chance at Champions League soccer he would have had to move outside England, and finding a Champions League team willing to pay an $9 million transfer for a 30-year-old player would not have been easy. That’s to say nothing of the fact Dempsey would have had to uproot his family and take his wife and two young children to a new country.

And staying at Tottenham offered no guarantee of Champions League for him. Even if Spurs have a strong 2013/2014 season, and manage to break into the Champions League a year from now, would a 31-year-old Dempsey be in their plans? You can definitely argue that Dempsey would have pushed for, and probably earned, a good share of minutes this year, but was it worth the risk of sticking around without any real guarantees he would ever play a Champions League match in a Spurs uniform?

It is tough to look at this move as Dempsey giving up, or surrendering, because the fact is he has spent the past seven seasons fighting and succeeding in one of the world’s best leagues, and most of those years were spent playing for a revolving door of managers at Fulham. He then took a risk by making a move to a bigger club in search of that Champions League dream, and while he didn’t achieve it, he still held his own and delivered key goals and moments in his usual trademark fashion.

That is why this move is so tough for some to accept right now. He played well for Tottenham, so why not have another run at it, and potentially earn a more established place on the team? That is a very fair question, and it very likely boiled down to being presented with an offer, and option, that may never come his way again. Seattle’s offer came at a perfect time, and made perfect sense for the Sounders, but isn’t one Dempsey could hope to find a year from now.

There are natural concerns about his form and whether a return to MLS will make affect his quality. There is something to be said for that, and that is likely why, according to SBI sources, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t a fan of this move. While there may be something to that, the reality is MLS is an improving league with a high enough quality to keep Dempsey sharp. And perhaps more importantly, Dempsey’s work ethic has never been questions so it’s probably a stretch to think he would suddenly rest on his laurels.

We can definitely get into the machinations used by MLS to help facilitate this blockbuster deal, and we will, but right now the focus of this piece is trying to illustrate how Dempsey came to this decision to come back to MLS.

Ultimately, Dempsey was presented with a historic offer that only served to solidify the fact that he would be returning to a much stronger league than he left, and a more more attractive club situation than the one he walked away from so unhappily almost seven years ago.

Not everyone will like the move, and plenty will feel like he should have stayed in Europe (Klinsmann being one of those people), but it isn’t as hard to understand as you might think.

It isn’t just about the money, though a $32 million contract doesn’t hurt, but also about returning to a much different MLS than he left. An MLS he could have only dreamed of existing when he first left for Europe.

371 comments
  • Mike R

    Apparetly when he looke around Seattle he didn’t notice the artificial turf that will ruin his 30 yr old knees prematurely if he doesn’t get hacked into retirement sooner.

    Love Clint, stupid move. Maybe he’s getting a free price is right shirt

    Like

  • Glenn

    (I’m an Evertonian)

    I now suspect/realize that the Everton rumor was probably a cover story/smoke screen for his across-water-flight to SF. Still, I would have really liked the move to Everton. Call me nuts, but I feel it would have given Deuce an outside chance at CL and put him with a “blue” collar team that would appreciate his work ethic. He would have been a great replacement for Osman in a CM role, and with their new faces – it just might have worked. We’ll never know. Good luck, Deuce!

    Like

      • EspinDOHla

        Not sure how he loves American players as there were none at Wigan and Tim Howard was at Everton long before Martinez.

        I do love his commentary on ESPN though.

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  • Adam

    I guess this move was based on his awful performance in the last qualifier against Honduras. He was had by the Honduran defense and midfield. It sometimes feels he loses his finesse touch when the hacking begins; same as Dovenan who by the way also plays in MLS. Michael Bradley is our best rep in international club level.

    Like

  • John

    So can he play tonight? I feel like that’s a dumb question but also kind of want to know. haha

    Like

  • The Imperative Voice

    Seattle has been this well-attended well-funded team where it was amazing they’d not accomplished more. Put EJ and Dempsey up top and this is a contender again. They needed to do something dramatic and this makes them irrelevant.

    Tottenham did not have him in their serious plans. As a CFC fan, AVB has stupid plans. But no sense fighting them.

    If he’d never left Fulham or Spurs treated him right I don’t think he’d be back. London has great schools and one assumes he could have found a destination with good schools, including a local American school if necessary, if this was about the kids. He’s only got a few years left so I don’t see where he was in a rush to come home.

    But if you want to maintain NT leadership — and I thought he was a little less effective in the spring — he needs to play regularly and be trusted by the boss. He could have made a big money move in Europe but it would have had the same playing time risks, which he doesn’t need in a World Cup year. He could have made a downward English move but then you’re playing on some struggling team lucky to get in Europe, who probably can’t pay much different than a DP deal. Going to Seattle and getting PT and trying to get them their first strikes me as a wise way to prepare for the World Cup, and he can go back to England on loan in the winter just the same if he so desires…..although he could also maybe just rest and play in the January camp then MLS preseason and such.

    Some of the prestige arguments are circular or not applicable. He wasn’t playing UEFACL anyway and might have had to risk PT to go to such a team. Some of the snob arguments against MLS assume it should stay second rate and not have aspirations. Like they’re not allowed to make dramatic signings. That’s the only way the gap closes. Seattle has a decent coach in Schmid, stability in leadership, has been competitive most years, and was probably treading water on purpose the first half of the season waiting to make this kind of move. Turf might not be ideal but getting Dempsey back in the league is a feather in our cap if we can keep him healthy on that surface.

    Like

  • Philadelphia Collins

    What’s the projected line-up now for the sounders with Dempsey in the team?

    Like

    • The Other Jeff

      Locks to start: Oba, Dempsey, EJ, Evans, Alonso, Yedlin, Traore, Gspurning. I won’t diagram nor break out mids from forwards, because who knows how Sigi will sort out the formation? But these are players who have to be on the field.

      That’s 8 spots locked down.

      Sixth attacking spot (assuming 4 in the back) comes from Neagle, Zakuani, Rosales, Burch, Caskey, Carrasco, Joseph, Rose, Estrada, Lund, Zavaleta. Looks like some surplus there that could be used to bulk up the defense.

      LB Leo Gonzales or Burch.

      FO has been shopping for another CB so stay tuned – until then you have Hurtado, backed by Ianni. Yedlin backed up by Scott.

      Solid starters and good depth everywhere but the back line, which could use an upgrade at CB and arguably LB plus more depth.

      Like

    • The Other Jeff

      (repost due to moderation)

      Locks to start: Oba, Dempsey, EJ, Evans, Alonso, Yedlin, Traore, Gspurning. I won’t diagram nor break out mids from forwards, because who knows how Sigi will sort out the formation? But these are players who have to be on the field.

      That’s 8 spots locked down.

      Sixth attacking spot (@ssuming 4 in the back) comes from Neagle, Zakuani, Rosales, Burch, Caskey, Carrasco, Joseph, Rose, Estrada, Lund, Zavaleta. Looks like some surplus there that could be used to bulk up the defense.

      LB Leo Gonzales or Burch.

      FO has been shopping for another CB so stay tuned – until then you have Hurtado, backed by Ianni. Yedlin backed up by Scott.

      Solid starters and good depth everywhere but the back line, which could use an upgrade at CB and arguably LB plus more depth.

      Like

      • Pingunça

        One fix… If he can stay healthy– Ianni backed by Hurtado .

        Sounders just missed out on Chen -to Malaga- so any CB coming in would be challenging for Hurtado’s spot

        IMO

        Like

  • BOYD

    So, he forces his move to an CL team by refusing to play and after a few months he realizes he’s not that good and moves back home with his tail between his legs.
    That’s class right there.

    Like

  • stargate1

    It does not matter really where he plays. He is not a big impact player or someone who can lift USMNT to a higher level. It is good for him that he takes the money and his family will be secured financially. USMNT aint going to the cup quarter or semi w/ or w/o Clint. As for his future, really what can he accomplish by playing 2 or 3 more years on EPL ?

    Like

  • JF

    MLS signing Dempsey is all about image and making a statement. And the statement MLS is making is this: MLS is a good enough league now that it America’s most accomplished player can return to the league in his prime.

    Except this is a lie. Because the reality is, MLS is a league where the majority of players are on League 1 wages.

    It’s all about image.

    Like

  • The Other Jeff

    On the hot seat: Sigi Schmid. No more excuses. Four current internationals: Dempsey, Oba, EJ, Evans. One future international: Yedlin. Alonso, who could be today if Cuba would release him. Several more former internationals: Traore, Rosales, Gspurning, Joseph (and in the background Hahnemann). If the rumors are true, management isn’t done yet, CB to come. One of the best home-field advantages in the world.

    Like

  • John

    I think a lot of coaches like the numbers Dempsey put up but it so hard to say where Dempsey really fits into a line up. Never having a set position is what was always going to keep Dempsey from a Champions League roster. Coaches want players who fit there system. Even coming into Seattle I’m not real sure where he’ll end up lining up. Players like Altidore and even Shea I think have more potential in Europe because there’s no question where you line them up.

    Like

  • Sean

    Great article except when they said his work ethic was never questioned. It has been, at times, especially on his defensive work.

    However, as someone very surprised about this move and wishing Dempsey had a better option in Europe, this is a great day for us MLS fans.

    Dempsey is a popular US player who has chosen to play in an excellent soccer market where he’ll be celebrated. He is getting paid a large sum of money in the domestic league, which is always positive for youth players who look at a career in soccer. He will get solid playing time as a starter and will likely be in strong form heading into the World Cup. Instead of possibly being burnt out from a long European season, he could be hitting his mid season stride when the World Cup it’s. MLS gets a little better with him in it. Who knows, maybe Donovan could be persuaded to stay now if LA ponies up the dough – could this salary force Donovan to demand more than he’s earning? Seattle’s owners, in my opinion, have made this move as a statement most of all. For Dempsey to be earning more than Donovan, Keane, Henry, DiVaio, Cahill, etc… It’s a statement, not necessarily logical. I think the owners are telling their fans, we will aggressively spend our money on players that improve the team, excite our fan base, and show our loyalty. I’m not sure this move will make the team a championship side, though.

    Dempsey also brings back strong experience to share with the club, players, fans, and homegrowns.

    Like

  • Dennis

    This means that 10 of Ives projected 23 man 2014 WC roster will be playing in MLS.

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  • Thisten

    The real winner here is me! No more watching Clint burst through the box unmarked only to be ignored by Defoe as he uncorks another 30-yard blast into the stands.

    Like

  • Scott

    Ives, your writing is not very good.

    Like the Dempsey move, though. He has proven he has what it takes to succeed wherever he has been. Plus, he is too old after Brazil anyways. As long as he is in form for the world cup in a year, more power to him.

    Like

    • slowleftarm

      Ives, ignore this buffoon. Your site is top notch and we’re all Iucky to have it.

      Like

      • Scott

        Agreed, good site. On my feedly reader for US soccer updates. Just think your writing is not very good, so what?

        Don’t know why that makes me a buffoon, but sure…

        Like

  • Paul

    – Kudos to Ives for a well-written column. There’s a reason soccer fans flock to this site.
    – I don’t blame Dempsey for signing the lucrative contract. He has only a few more good years left.
    – Seattle and MLS understand his transfer fee and salary are worth more here because he is an American, and will fill seats and boost ratings. European teams won’t pay a fee that size for a 30 year old player.
    – When MLS finishes in a couple of months, Dempsey is in control and can choose whether to go back to Europe on loan, and which offer is best for him and his family.
    – This transaction sends a strong message to many of the other MLS franchises – adapt or fade. Ives mentions the notoriously cheap Kraft ownership of NE Revs, which hasn’t changed. They still have the same mindset today, and it shows with the leveling off of the fan base. They are now seeing newer MLS franchises such as Seattle surpass them.
    – Dempsey will be considered a trailblazer for future US players, thriving in an attacking role. Future EPL teams and other European leagues will be less hesitant to take a chance on a young US prospect that fit his mold.
    – It is a much more stable and visionary MLS than the one Dempsey left. Consider that the farm system and youth teams were virtually non-existent when he last played here.
    – Dempsey’s signing might start a trend. If a US player playing in Europe in his later years is undervalued overseas, he may find a home in MLS.
    – One wonders what Dempsey does in four years when he retires? Might he have sufficient funds to buy an ownership stake?

    Like

  • Catenaccio

    I have a weird angle on all of this. I spent the last 17 years living in NYC and just moved to Seattle. I’ve been a Metros/Red Bulls fan in that time. Was happy when Red Bull bought the team and the new stadium. Always thought the matches between NY and DC were big rivalries even with 12,000 people in Giants Stadium. But when I got here and went to a match most of the country (especially the bloggers on the East Coast – minus Ives here of course who’s been here) have no idea how soccer-centric the Pacific Northwest really is. Soccer is the main sport here. When Forbes put out a list saying Seattle was the worst sports city in American no one cared because it didn’t take MLS or the Sounders into consideration in their decision. The Sounders are this city. I think Clint felt that energy when he got here and it just bit him like it’s bit me. I’ll always be a Metros fan ’til I die but the East Coast has no clue how good MLS is out here. It’s the top league and will be with the hope the rest of the countries markets catch up.

    Like

  • gtv

    I’m with Klinsi – not a fan of this move. I get it from Deuce’s perspective. And Deuce will still be Deuce. He will play hard, scrap all the way and always be a factor in the USMNT. But there’s no way the MLS can prepare a player the way Europe can. From the intensity of practice and vying for PT, to the fan bases and ownership, to the academies and the football culture, Europe has that in way MLS never will. That’s why the European-based players are generally our A teamers and the MLSers are the B teamers.

    Like

    • Ivan

      Even if for the sake of discussion we accept everything you have said as given, it is irrelevant going forward. The situation is changing more rapidly than you imagine. I have lived in Seattle since 1966. The intrusion of big time soccer into the consciousness of the population here has always enjoyed steady growth, even after the collapse of the original NASL, but nothing could have prepared anyone for the events of the recent years — and certainly not those of the recent months.

      If anyone would have told me, even a year ago, that Seattle Sounders would use financial muscle to strongarm a La Liga team’s top scorer away from Spain and put him in a Sounders’ uniform, I would have called for the men in the white coats. Yet that is exactly what happened with Obafemi Martins.

      This ownership, quite clearly, has the long-term goal of making Seattle one of the world’s soccer capitals. Reasonable people might disagree as to whether that is realistic, or in any way attainable, but in an area where Microsoft and Amazon are dominant corporate cultures, it should not be surprising.

      Thanks to the satellite, I have been able to watch Spurs regularly, just to see how Clint could hold his own in the EPL. All the analyses I have read on this thread about whether this helps Clint or hurts him, whether it helps the USMNT or hurts it, are interesting, and entertaining. But they fail to take one thing into account.

      I think we can stipulate that top to bottom, EPL and UEFACL is the top competition in the world — at this moment. But mark my words, Clint’s move to MLS, and the Sounders’ move to get him here, have raised expectations to a level heretofore undreamed of, and those expectations can only lead to other personnel moves that will close the gap between MLS and EPL. Even if that gap never closes altogether, the effort toward that end — and the competition that it engenders — can only lift the game worldwide. This is only the first of many such moves — only the first. It is only a matter of time before MLS teams start signing 18- and 19-year-old Brazilians to long-term contracts, as Shakhtar Donetsk has done.

      Clint will be fine. Sounders will be fine. MLS will be fine. USMNT will be fine. Spurs will not be so fine. Let me leave the thread with one question I have not seen addressed: If I was Clint, and I saw Spurs not doing everything they could to keep Bale, why in hell would I want to stick around?

      Like

      • gtv

        As I said, I get it from Clint’s perspective.

        Interesting point about Seattle, the cultural buy-in with soccer, and the Microsoft analogy. I have seen videos of the fans in the NW and they are as close to the fan atmosphere of Europe as we will get in the MLS.

        But that does NOT make a soccer culture. Will parents in Seattle let their kids quit school to enter Sounders’ academy? Will the fan clubs organize and pressure the club ownership when they don’t like decisions being made? Will Sigi bench a star and throw him under the bus if he doesn’t perform well in practice? I doubt it. And that’s why Seattle and the MLS can never be anything like any European club, beyond the superficial level of the fans.

        Like

      • Ivan

        Please feel free to set your threshold for what defines a “soccer culture” wherever you wish. While you are doing so, others will define “soccer culture” for themselves, and not necessarily to your satisfaction.

        I watched games that the old NASL Seattle sounders played, against Giorgio Chinaglia and the old NY Cosmos, in the Kingdome before 43,000 screaming fans. The “soccer culture” of the present has surpassed that atmosphere by quantum leaps, and the ceiling is nowhere in sight. I feel confident in telling you that the goal of this ownership is to satisfy even fans with your threshold.

        As I see it, the only thing that might prevent that from happening is the relative lack of public ownership of clubs, and the lack of a relegation structure, such as the Euro and Latin American leagues have.

        I think one of the main contributors to the “soccer culture” that you speak of is the idea that any club can, theoretically at least, advance to the top flight. I would prefer it that structure existed here. It gives more fans, in more cities, more of a stake in a positive outcome for their local clubs.

        Like

      • EspinDOHla

        I agree with your post but you have to remember that Seattle is one of three teams that can do this and make the moves you describe. This is a benchmark move for MLS but even lower end EPL sides can make these moves. It’s going to be a very, very long time before lower end MLS teams are capable of bringing a player in like Clint. It’s moving in the right direction though.

        Like

  • Crazyj

    For everyone that thinks the move to MLS will prevent Demosey from being an impact player in the World Cup I think it is importantly to look at past World Cups. We had a number of players playing in MLS that started in the 2002 World Cup and the league is miles better now. It also appears every World Cup we have at least one MLS player that is one of the best performers on the team. And yes I admit, I am a delusional MLS supporter!

    Like

  • Jay Bonds

    Is Clint Dempsey really worth $8M a year? Well we’ll find out soon enough. He has Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson to work with, unlike when Beckham joined Galaxy. He has to deliver.

    Like

    • JF

      too much money for an MLS team to pay. Soccer is not a sport where you can put a great player on a team and then all of a sudden that team becomes great. Dempsey is making 8 mil and will be playing alongside players making 40k.

      This is a farcical wage structure.

      Like

  • WolvesForever

    Anyone every consider taxes…he’s starting the winter of his career and in the end it’s about what you take home – a move back to the US is a much better tax situation than the UK…drink it up MC Dempsey and keep it in your wallet!

    Like

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