Photo by Jane Gershovich/Soccer By Ives
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – A league finding its stride on and off the field. A local soccer culture that felt European in size and intensity. A sense of obligation to grow the American game.
Clint Dempsey cited all these and more at his introductory press conference Monday afternoon as he explained his decision to abandon the English Premier League for the Seattle Sounders and MLS in the prime of his career.
But perhaps no reason rang so true as the simple desire to live and work and raise his family in the place he was born. And as much as his decision shocked the soccer world, the captain of the U.S. national team made plain it was a while in the making.
“I was already starting to get the itch, to be honest with you,” Dempsey said about returning to the country almost seven years after last playing for the New England Revolution. “I wanted to come to the States. I just missed being in America. It’s where I was born. I wanted to help continue the growth of the game here.”
In explaining his decision over the course of a half-hour press conference with head coach Sigi Schmid and members of the Sounders’ front office, Dempsey time and again made it clear he has always kept an eye on MLS, always felt a commitment to help grow the league and the sport.
“I’ve always followed the league,” he said. “It’s the league that gave me my chance to become a professional. I wanted to be able to come back when I’m in my prime and not when I’m past it, to help continue the growth of this league and of this club.”
General manager Adrian Hanauer couched the signing in terms of the organization’s obligation to its fans.
“We really do feel as though we are stewards of this franchise for our fan base,” Hanauer said. “And they deserve players like we have on our team, and they deserve players like Clint Dempsey.”
Dempsey also emphasized that both the strength of the Sounders’ support and the presence of Schmid helped make Seattle his destination of choice.
When the 30-year-old visited Seattle with the national team in early June, the Sounders played a few days before, on a night Dempsey happened to be out and about the Emerald City.
“It almost felt like you were in a different country, felt like you were in Europe,” Dempsey said on Monday. “Walking around the city, you see the game is on TVs in bars, in restaurants. And I just went, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d see the day.’”
Asked more specifically why he chose Seattle, Dempsey added, “It was important to be in Seattle because of the fan base, the atmosphere. Because Sigi as a coach is someone who’s done so much for the American game. Just being around the national team, you hear players when they talk about different coaches. It was always positive, what players had to say about him.”
Dempsey also said he has yet to talk to United States Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but dismissed concerns about whether leaving the EPL for MLS would impact his performance in the 2014 World Cup.
“I’m still going to have that pressure to succeed, pushing me every day to make sure I can be the best player that I can be, and help the team be the best they can be,” he said.
“I’m not going to let up, or slow down, or slack,” he added. “I’m going to keep pushing myself, keep working hard, and make the most of where I’m at, and I’m happy to be here in Seattle. We’ll have those discussions, but from my standpoint I don’t see there being a difference there, because there are players still in MLS that get called into camp and they still perform at a high level, and I expect to do the same.”
Asked about his decision to come back in his prime instead of waiting a few years, Dempsey suggested holding off would undermine his ability to help grow the sport domestically.
“You can’t help the growth of the game if you come back and don’t perform,” he said, adding, “I want to come and make an impact. I want to do a good job. I don’t want to come and be past it and not be able to make a difference in games. I want to win things.”
As to what happened to his desire to play in UEFA Champions League, a desire that drove him to move from Fulham to Tottenham just a year ago, Dempsey implied the pull of home and developing soccer in America was simply stronger.
“I’ve been in Europe for six-and-a-half years,” he said, “and I just wanted to come home. I was starting to get that itch—every year it was more difficult to go back [to Europe]. I think everything just has to do with timing. The Seattle Sounders moved mountains to get me here. It was an opportunity to come back in my prime and help continue the growth of this league, and it’s a challenge I’m excited about.”
Addressing his time in Europe, Dempsey concluded, “I look back with no regrets.”
As to his future with the Sounders, he said, “The goal here is to win an MLS Cup, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”