Clint Dempsey, the U.S. national team captain who has spent the past several seasons scoring regularly in England, is on his way to the Seattle Sounders. The stunning transfer immediately will become one of the most significant transactions in Major League Soccer history when it is announced on Saturday.
SI.com has confirmed the move, which first was reported by ESPN on Friday evening.
Dempsey, 30, was rumored to be on the way out at Tottenham Hotspur following a 2012-13 season in which he failed to make a consistent impact under coach André Villas-Boas. But no one expected a return to MLS, especially for an athlete in his prime who'd been so vocal about his desire to play for an elite club competing for a berth in the UEFA Champions League.
Hints began to surface on Thursday, when Fox Soccer analyst Keith Costigan revealed on Twitter that the Sounders were "interested" in Dempsey. Later that day, the player was photographed at the airport in San Francisco. Tottenham, which is preparing for the 2013-14 English Premier League season, is scheduled to play an exhibition in Monaco on Saturday.
Following ESPN's report, SI.com learned from a source with direct knowledge of the Sounders' plans that Dempsey will be in attendance at the club's MLS match against FC Dallas on Saturday night. He is expected to be formally presented to the media on Monday. The Texan had two seasons left on his contract with Tottenham, which reportedly paid around $10 million to acquire him from London rival Fulham last summer.
Friday reports out of Seattle suggested that the Sounders paid some $9 million for Dempsey's rights. NBC claimed that he will be making an additional $32 million over the course of a four-year deal, which would represent the largest annual salary in MLS history. David Beckham made $6.5 million per season during his first five years with the L.A. Galaxy. Later Friday, The Washington Post reported that Dempsey will make a base annual salary of $4 million. The reason for the discrepancy was unclear.
It's understood that Dempsey was not subject to MLS's allocation process, which determines the order of access and right of first refusal for high-profile U.S. players returning to the league. He is believed to be exempt because he will be a designated player, meaning the vast majority of his salary won't count against the Sounders' budget.
The American soccer community was only beginning to come to terms with the news on Friday night while the player, his agent, the club and MLS all remained silent.
It's been considered a given that MLS served as a stepping stone for the most talented and ambitious American players on their way to Europe, where the competition, money, exposure and development are considered so superior.
That dogma has been reinforced by U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who routinely urges his players to aim for "another level" in their careers.
In June 2012, as rumors circulated about his future at Craven Cottage, Dempsey said, "I'm not saying Fulham won't ever get (to the Champions League). But I'm 29 years old now and I only have a certain number of years left to play at the highest level. Hopefully, that is in the cards."
By the end of the summer, he was at Tottenham.
Dempsey tallied 60 goals in his 5.5 seasons at Fulham, but it was during the last two campaigns that he achieved elite status. He struck 13 times in 2010-11 and then set a record for American players abroad (since broken by Jozy Altidore) with 23 goals the following season.
But that wasn't enough for either Dempsey or Klinsmann. The player was angling for a move away from Fulham, which never finished higher than seventh during Dempsey's spell in London. Klinsmann summed up his feelings on the matter in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last January.
"My whole talk to Clint Dempsey for 18 months was (about how) he hasn't made shit," the coach said. "You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team and that you may end up winning the Champions League. There is always another level."
Up-and-coming Tottenham missed out on the 2012-13 Champions League on an excruciating technicality (sixth-place Chelsea took the EPL's fourth and final spot as reigning European champions) and appeared to be an ideal destination. Dempsey was able to keep his young family in the capital while playing for one of the most high-profile teams in the sport's highest-profile league.
But his personal profile slipped at White Hart Lane, along with his production. Dempsey started 22 of 38 EPL games last season and was injured twice. He scored seven league goals and 12 in all competitions but never really seemed to secure the full measure of Villas-Boas' confidence. Spurs' recent acquisitions of Brazilian midfielder Paulinho (from world champion Corinthians) and Spanish forward Roberto Soldado (from Valencia) likely pushed Dempsey further down the pecking order.
But while his Champions League dreams faded, Dempsey remained indispensable to the national team. He carried the U.S. through last fall's World Cup qualifiers, netting five goals in six games (the Americans managed only 11). He's tallied five in eight matches in 2013 and finished as the U.S.' leading scorer in each of the past two years. Although Altidore and Landon Donovan recently have rediscovered their international form, there is little doubt that Dempsey is considered Klinsmann's most effective attacking option a year before the 2014 World Cup.
His decision to leave England now, with Brazil on the horizon, will lead many to question whether Dempsey is doing the World Cup effort a disservice. Regular competition against the planet's best players seems to be the ideal way to prepare for the tournament (although MLS didn't hurt Donovan in 2010, or Dempsey himself four years earlier when he was with the New England Revolution). But Friday's news clearly suggests that Dempsey now has additional motives. Certainly taking care of his family is one, and if the choice facing him was returning to a mediocre team like Fulham, leaving England for a more foreign European culture or playing before massive crowds at an ambitious club like the Sounders, then his decision isn't too difficult to comprehend.
In fact, Dempsey lauded Seattle's soccer atmosphere in June, when the U.S. played a qualifier at CenturyLink Field.
"I'm good friends with (Sounders forward) Eddie Johnson, and he always tells me what it's like playing here, playing in front of the fans, just how it's an atmosphere that's comparable to what it is in Europe," Dempsey told reporters. "It's great to see that the game is building and that there are markets like this where people have passion for the game. I almost felt like I was in another country the other day when the Seattle Sounders game was on."
The Sounders are willing to spend like they're in another country as well. Backed by film producer Joe Roth and minority shareholders Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and comedian Drew Carey, Seattle has been restricted only by MLS's salary budget and the limit of three designated players per team.
During the club's inaugural MLS season in 2009, Carey said, "One of the main reasons we've been successful is, I think a lot of sports teams, not just in soccer but teams in other sports, you can tell when they're run by accountants. They don't have any passion. It's just about selling tickets, a promotion here or there. You can always tell. We're a team that's not run by accountants. Everybody here has a passion for winning and success. All of us, between Adrian, me and Joe and, well, Paul Allen, nobody really needs money."
In the same interview, which followed the Sounders' U.S. Open Cup final win over D.C. United that summer, Carey said presciently, "America's different. There's basketball, football, baseball. There's everything. You really have to step up and say, 'You can't miss these games because you're seeing the best players America has to offer.' When we're able to keep all the Clint Dempseys and Jozy Altidores, and keep them in town because we can afford them now, keeping these guys and having these stars raised in America will be a big thing for us."
Dempsey's signing is huge, both for the Sounders and for MLS. The other 18 teams may not look forward to going up against him, but they can't deny that Dempsey's choice is a ringing endorsement for the league's level of play, atmosphere and increasing financial heft. If it's good enough for the national team's talisman in the year before the World Cup, then it may be good enough, period.
But whether it's the right move for Dempsey remains to be seen. He is a player who envisioned a much different future only last summer. He must now reset both his mind (Seattle might be electric, but no one will mistake Dallas or Columbus for Manchester or Liverpool) and his body (five hour flights, artificial turf, etc.) for the unexpected challenge to come.