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.