The news Friday that Clint Dempsey was close to completing a move to the Seattle Sounders caught everybody off guard. Ives Galarcep of SBI described it as “the biggest splash by an MLS signing since David Beckham joined the league,” in his article on the transfer. Much has been written about what it means for MLS and the Seattle Sounders for the current USMNT captain to return to the league while still ostensibly in his prime at 30-years-old. Likewise, much has also been made of whether this is a good move for Dempsey, considering the fact that the World Cup is less than a year away combined with Jurgen Klinsmann’s desire to see his top players playing at a high level in Europe.
To the first point, I think few would argue that this is a great move for MLS in terms of increasing the league’s prestige by bringing, with the possible exception of Michael Bradley, the best US soccer player right now back to the league he left seven years ago. Though Dempsey is only a year younger than Donovan, it also gives MLS a chance to, at least in the short term, find a new face for the league who is not a balding Cambodian monk (only kidding Landycakes). The move makes sense not only from a marketing standpoint, but it also demonstrates that MLS is making significant strides in improving the standard of play. A few years ago, Dempsey probably would not have considered a return to MLS until later in his career, now it is a viable option for him.
Signing Dempsey was also a good move for the Seattle Sounders. As reported by NBC sports, they clearly have the money and the willingness to spend it to be able to pay the $9 million transfer fee and $32 million in wages over the next four years, after they restructured Shalrie Joseph’s contract to free up a designated player slot. Dempsey is exactly the sort of player the Seattle have seemed to have been missing this season, a dynamic player who can link midfield and attack who also has the ability to create something for himself. Sounders fans have been crying out for a big signing to help the team get over their playoff hump and make a serious challenge for MLS cup after DP’s like Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise Nkufo failed to set the league alight. Dempsey fits the bill and should be able to help the team climb up the standings in the West to set up a run in the playoffs.
With Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins already on the books in Seattle, there is some question as to where Dempsey fits into Sigi Schmid’s tactical setup. Will one of the aforementioned players be sacrificed to allow Dempsey to play as a second striker, will he play in behind the two forwards in a midfield diamond with Osvaldo Alonso behind to provide defensive cover, or will the Sounders adapt a 4-2-3-1 formation with Johnson pushed out to the left in a role he has played for the national team, Dempsey in the middle, Rosales on the right, and Martins up top?
The possibilities are intriguing. While there could be an issue if Sigi feels compelled to play all of his ‘marquee’ players at the same time, he is too experienced of a coach to make such a mistake and he has already shown his willingness to bench Johnson, Martins, or Rosales in favor of a player in good form such as Lamar Neagle at times this season. Thankfully for Seattle, they have got a hardworking and versatile player in Clint Dempsey (he played seven different positions for Tottenham last season according to whoscored.com) and, provided he does not fall curse to the Sounder’s injury curse this season, he should be a huge success at Century Link stadium.
Now, to the most controversial part of the move in the eyes of many fans: was joining Seattle a good move for Dempsey? As Roger Bennett writes on ESPNFC.com, many US fans have an inferiority complex when it comes to the league in their own backyard, MLS. Go to any preseason friendly featuring an MLS and European club and you are likely to see far more Real Madrid, Manchester United, or Barcelona jerseys than those of the local side. Likewise, if you see a couple people playing a game of Fifa, chances are they are replicating El Clasico, not the ‘Superclasico’ between the Galaxy and Chivas. The fact is MLS’s biggest competitors are no longer the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but the Premier League, La Liga, or even the Mexican top flight. There is a deep-seated perception among many fans that the quality of play in MLS is miles behind most every European league.
This can be seen in the differing perspectives many fans have of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan; Dempsey is viewed as a success for playing in Europe for a lower to middle half of the table club in Fulham before spending a season with Tottenham where he never established himself as a regular starter, while Donovan is viewed as a flop for his time in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and is perceived as being soft for never wanted to make the move to Europe on a permanent basis after his loan spells with Bayern Munich and Everton. From this perspective, Dempsey is making a huge mistake by returning to MLS.
However, there is amble evidence that moving to MLS is not necessarily the massive step down in the level of competition many seem to think it is. MLS clearly is not yet on the same level as the Premier League, but the starting XI of a top club like the LA Galaxy would not find themselves out matched in a one-off game against a bottom half of the table side like Aston Villa (the type of club Dempsey would have had to go to in order to find regular playing time), though obviously the financial constraints of MLS would mean that in a full season, the lack of depth in their roster would see them struggle to compete consistently.
Whatever the Premier League’s merits, there were consistent rumors that even if he was not actually transfer listed, Dempsey was not in Andre Villas Boas’s plans and the fact of the matter is that other clubs were not exactly queuing up to sign Dempsey. Yes, he is a quality, proven player, but at 30-years-old, he has little to no resale value and most clubs would rather try to develop a younger player themselves than rely on a veteran who is talented, but not talented to the level where age becomes irrelevant.
Therefore, does it make more sense for Dempsey to stay on at Spurs where he may be used as an impact sub by AVB, or go to a club where he will be a franchise player guaranteed to start barring injury? Clearly, playing in MLS has not hurt a player like Landon Donovan, who has been a regular for the USMNT for a decade despite never plying his trade in Europe on a permanent basis. Likewise, players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson, and now Clarence Goodson have all started for the full national team in recent qualifiers while in MLS, while the likes of Joe Corona and Damarcus Beasley have also featured while playing their football in North America.
American player plying their trade domestically also benefit in a way from MLS’s schedule, with the winter break allowing them time to recover physically and mentally before heading to the World Cup in midseason form. Alternatively, Dempsey could also head back to England on loan to keep his match fitness up during this time. Dempsey will still be under plenty of pressure to perform at a high level, perhaps more now that he is on big money at one of the most demanding fan bases in MLS, who boast an attendance of 4620 more than the number of fans who attended White Hart Lane on an average match day according to worldfootball.net. Will Dempsey fulfill his dream of playing in the Champions League by moving to Seattle? No, unless of course the Sounders quality for the CONCACAF variety for the coming season.
But at the end of the day, this was never going to happen unless perhaps Dempsey was willing to move to big side in one of Europe’s smaller leagues. By moving to Seattle, Dempsey will be in a role similar to the one he will occupy with the national team next summer in Brazil; not a bit part player, but the team leader, who will be expected to perform every time he steps onto the pitch. Playing in MLS is a smart move for Dempsey because it gives him the security of playing time he simply would not have received at Tottenham.
Bonus: Did Dempsey foreshadow his move to Seattle a couple of months ago?