The news of Clint Dempsey signing with the Seattle Sounders was stunning and it has left American fans with a wide range of emotions.
There is no question that it is a step down in competition as MLS is simply not the Premier League in terms of quality or prestige. Dempsey is still only 30 years old and has plenty of good soccer left. So why did he make the move? How does this change the dynamic of American soccer?
For many American fans, Clint Dempsey was the ambassador of American soccer. He was born and raised in Texas. He wasn't a dual national whose game was influenced from foreign cultures within his heritage. He developed entirely in the United States playing in college and with the US U-20 team during his youth. He began his career in MLS and made the 2006 World Cup team before moving overseas.
In other words, he was an all-American guy and when he went to the Premier League, he quickly became the most recognizable American field player. Fulham is a small team by Premier League standards but Dempsey's accomplishments there made the club recognizable in the United States.
When Dempsey moved to Tottenham last year, it was seen as his chance to finally play for a team capable of qualifying for the Champions League. It's true that several Americans have played in the Champions League before and just last year Michael Parkhurst, Sacha Kljestan, and Jermaine Jones all took part in the group stages. But Dempsey was the best American player ever in Europe and it seemed only fair that he should have his shot.
In Dempsey's first year at Tottenham he played well but battled through some injuries and the club narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot. This preseason was a wild time for Spurs who could still potentially lose Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. It was unclear what Dempsey's role would be on the team as he was placed on the transfer list and there was a strong possibility the team would not have a good chance at a Champions League spot this year without Bale.
The Seattle Sounders and Major League Soccer sensed the opportunity and made one of the boldest moves in league history. With a $9 million transfer price and a reported salary that could reach as high as $8 million per year over four years, the Sounders made an offer that Dempsey simply could not refuse. Signing David Beckham and Thierry Henry were moves that brought global stars to the league but this is one that brought an American star.
It is safe to say that no move in the history of American soccer has brought a wider range of reaction than this. Dempsey's fans were always proud of his often-stated ambition to play the game at the highest level. He always had the drive to take the game to a higher level. With the move he is no longer the face of American soccer in Europe. That title now falls to Michael Bradley who plays in Serie A. While that is unquestionably an elite league, it is less visible in the United States. American fans had grown accustomed to waking up on the weekend mornings and easily watching Dempsey in the Premier League.
With the excitement of NBC's much anticipated Premier League coverage starting this year, U.S fans will have to hope Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and Tim Howard fill the void.
The move is not without benefits either. Major League Soccer is taking active strides to retain the best American talent. There's no better way for the league to be stronger than to have the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, or Landon Donovan under contract. The recent re-signings of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, two starters on the national team, were added steps in retaining top American players. Clint Dempsey, however, is the crown jewel.
Some have argued that Dempsey's signing is a step back in his ambition. Perhaps they are right but there are two ways of looking at it. Even if he saw playing time with Spurs this season and performed well, he was unlikely to be the focal point of the team's offense. Now he will be the face of an entire league and will be an integral part of the league's push to move to yet a higher level. Don Garber has stated he wants MLS to be an elite league in the decades ahead and making moves to attract players like Dempsey helps the league in terms of global relevance.
American soccer does not improve without a stronger MLS. A thriving domestic league is a needed ingredient and it could well be that Dempsey's ambition is to raise American soccer through MLS. If that is the case, it is a lofty but attainable goal. Ambition rarely disappears quickly. Dempsey's ambition may have changed, but it is likely still there. Right now, it is a safe bet that many fans within driving distance of an MLS stadium have already checked to see when Seattle will be coming to town.
Another common argument that has been circulating is that Dempsey's form will take a drop in the eight months before the World Cup camp convenes in May. This argument is pretty unpersuasive (although the idea of him playing on turf is a concern). Dempsey knows what it takes to play the game at the highest level. He is going to be playing more minutes with Seattle than he would with Spurs and will have added responsibilities as a leader. In playing with the national team regularly, he also knows well the strength of the league and he likely believes that MLS has improved to the point where it is a far more enticing option.
Also, he is going to be expected to dominate the league as opposed to being a role player for one team. Seattle will now be expected to contend for both the MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League. With so much experience under his belt, it is far more likely that Dempsey will be like Donovan who will smoothly transition between club and league play. There is the added bonus that at the World Cup next year, he will be in midseason form, not post-Euro season form.
The bottom line is that the move is a risk and nobody will know the results for a long time. If Dempsey changes the perception of MLS and helps make the league stronger, it is a huge plus. The sport cannot advance here without the league improving. On the other hand, it is also important that American players have a strong presence where the game is played at the highest level. The best national teams all have players with clubs in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France. Dempsey has carried that burden of being the icon of American soccer in Europe for a long time and others will now need to fill the void.
No one saw Dempsey heading home just a little more than a year removed from the European best season an American has ever had. It has everyone talking and debating. For now, optimism over this deal should prevail over the pessimism. Dempsey's career has always been one where he defied expectations amid setbacks. Early in his Fulham career, he was never automatic starter but he always fought through the odds to make himself standout and help the team. Maybe now in Seattle he will fight the odds and the critics once more for the benefit of the Sounders, the league, and sport in the United States. At every stage of his career Dempsey has always defied expectations and critics. If history is any indication, he will do so again this time.