As the global soccer community snickered and American fans outside Seattle fretted in the wake of Friday's stunning news that Clint Dempsey was coming back to MLS, what will someday be considered a landmark day for our domestic league was reduced to one word: Why?
Why on earth would Dempsey, at age 30 and playing for one of the better clubs in England, still well within his peak as a player, come back home? Why move from perhaps the best league in the world to one that's likely not even in the top 10? Why sign up for four years of FieldTurf? Why crow about ambition to play in the Champions League and then bail 12 months later, drawing derision and jokes about making CONCACAF's version rather than UEFA's?
In sum, why make a move that seems the antithesis of everything we have come to know about and identify with Dempsey, the nonconformist with a permanent chip on his shoulder?
Well, Seattle is the class of MLS when it comes to fan support, and the atmosphere the U.S. national team enjoyed during their 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Panama there in June couldn't have hurt. And let's face it, the cash on offer -- whether it's $32 million guaranteed or half of that -- is terrific and at or beyond anything Clint could have reasonably expected to garner overseas.
But where everyone has gone wrong is assuming this move reflects poorly on Dempsey, at least in terms of how we viewed him and what his stated ambitions have been. The general sense is that he is giving up. My sense is that Dempsey is taking the next step he needs to stay hungry.
Just a year ago, Dempsey forced his way out of mid-table side Fulham, with an eye on landing with a Champions League club. He settled for an intra-city move to a Tottenham side that had finished in a Champions League place the year before but had been pipped by Chelsea when the Blues won the whole competition. Dempsey went on to contribute 12 goals for Spurs in all competitions as a jack-of-all-trades weapon for Andre Villas-Boas, but Tottenham fell a point short of Arsenal for fourth place and will have to settle for the Europa League again this season.
As Spurs have brought in £54 million worth of transfers in Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Nacer Chadli this summer (and continue to hem and haw over the possible transfer of star Gareth Bale), the writing was starting to become clear: Dempsey was not going to play the kind of regular role he craves, and this still wasn't a Champions League team, with no guarantees it would be next season, either.
Dempsey is a guy who took a scholarship to Furman, in South Carolina, to prove something. Went to Europe to prove something. Pushed for a bigger club to prove something. And now he was in a position where he wasn't going to be allowed to prove anything more on a higher level.
Tottenham was already burying him deeper on the depth chart, at least a year ahead of possible Champions League games, with more recruits almost certain if they do qualify for 2014-15. A move to a different English team in the competition likely was impossible, at least in terms of starting those games. And maybe Clint, being the competitor he is, didn't want to backdoor his way into the event with a team from a lesser league, or just didn't want to move abroad. If he was going to reach his goal, he was going to do it his way, the way he's always done things.
Dempsey has already proven without any doubt that he's a high-caliber Premiership player, scoring 29 goals in his final two seasons at Fulham while mostly playing as an outside midfielder. There is absolutely no reason for him to go to a lesser side such as Sunderland or Swansea or West Ham and do what he's already done, which is the crux of this entire decision, in my opinion.
In an interview with The Sporting News earlier this year, Dempsey said the key to getting more respect for the U.S. national team was to have more U.S. players go overseas to play for major clubs. The underlying reason behind that is that U.S. players have to learn to play with the day-to-day pressure inherent in the richest and most passionate leagues in the world. Dempsey won't have to fight for his spot in Seattle's starting 11, but every match he plays will still carry an enormous amount of pressure.
With all respect to Landon Donovan, Dempsey is now the American face of MLS. He's making Thierry Henry money. He has to be better than good. He has to regularly dominate in a league that's a lot better and more competitive (and physical) than many believe. He has to show next summer that he can succeed at a World Cup despite playing in a league Europeans ignore.
Dempsey wasn't going to get that level of responsibility at Spurs, and he's already aced it elsewhere. It was time for a new challenge, maybe with a loan back to the Prem this winter to make a final statement and stay primed for Brazil. So, Dempsey didn't show us a new, softer side by taking big money to come home. He showed us exactly what's gotten him to this point.