Seattle's Clint Dempsey opens up about his move back to MLS
NEW YORK CITY — Clint Dempsey is now the face of Major League Soccer. And so, after completing his stunning transfer to the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur last week, Dempsey visited Gotham on Monday to make the rounds on some prime media destinations. That included a morning visit to the Sports Illustrated headquarters, where Dempsey and I sat down and spoke for 20 minutes about a number of topics.
Dempsey has always been a good interview one-on-one going back to our first sit-down in 2005 at a Dunkin Donuts in Foxboro, Mass. (I told him SI would take him anywhere, and he picked double-D. Go figure.) Since then, there have been long interviews at a fancy London restaurant; a hotel lobby in Genoa, Italy; and a catering tent in Kingston, Jamaica. Monday morning was the first time we'd done an interview in NYC, and Dempsey was even more expansive than usual. He seemed like a guy very much at peace with the decision he'd made to come home with his family on a $33 million deal that included a $9 million transfer and a three-and-a-half-year, $24 million contract with Seattle.
SI.com: Back in 2004, you were an MLS rookie making $40,625 a year, about one-twelfth that of another rookie, Freddy Adu, who was the league's highest-paid player. Now you're making 169 times what you made as a rookie, and you are MLS's highest-paid player. When you hear all that, what does it make you think?
Dempsey: It makes me think soccer is growing in this country, and that American players are starting to get more love financially. But it also shows the league is growing and there's more of a demand. It's good to see. I'm excited to get back to the league that gave me my chance back in 2004 when my dream was to become a professional soccer player. So I was happy to be making that [as a rookie], you know? I was like, 'Wow, I'm going to get paid to play soccer. That's crazy.' But then I realized how much it costs to live (laughs). In Massachusetts it's pretty expensive. I was staying in an apartment with my brother. It was a good experience.
SI.com: What do you remember from those days as a rookie about having to keep an eye on expenses day to day to make sure ends met?
Dempsey: When I first went to the league, I stayed with a host family for a little bit. It was a family who was like, if you want to cut costs just stay with us. I was like, 'Yeah, sure.' So for almost a year I stayed there. That helped save me money. But when I wanted to move into an apartment I had to pay off debts and stuff, and I didn't realize much about the whole credit thing (laughs). So we were struggling when we first moved into the apartment, sleeping on a sleeping bag and using a laptop as a TV to watch movies and stuff. We had a George Foreman grill. It was pretty bad. That's kind of how it was. But it was fun. An adventure.
SI.com: What was the name of your host family?
Dempsey: It was the Flecks. They came over to England when I was there, and it was good to see them. I got 'em tickets to the game. When I come back to the national team sometimes, they come to games. It was nice of them to help me out that first year. I was staying down in like a den. When you drive into the garage, as soon as you went through the garage there was like a little room. But it was cool, man. They had a little 'fridge downstairs that always had Gatorade and water. I'd get up in the middle of the night and grab Pop Tarts. It was cool.
SI.com: You could have stayed in England or a European club instead of coming to MLS. Why did you decide to come to Seattle now?
Dempsey: To be honest with you, going back to preseason I thought I was going to be at Tottenham for another two years. Then Lyle [Yorks, Dempsey's agent] came to me saying, 'Would you be interested in going back to MLS?' I said, 'If it's the right situation and it made sense, it would be something I'd look at. But come back to me when you know the full details of everything.' They got the ball rolling as far as inquiring and to Tottenham, asking them what the situation was. There might have been a little sniff there, the chance that something could happen. So I started thinking, well, it has been getting more difficult every year to come back [to England] after being home with family and stuff.
It's kind of been that thing in my life, trying to go and do your career, being a little more selfish in that regard, but also trying to be around your family too. I'm sure you can relate with that also, because you've had to do a lot of traveling. I saw my grandparents getting older and older, and I just want to be around my family more. Even though I'm still up in Washington [State], my grandparents can still come see me. They didn't have passports; they just would never go do it. So they'll come up and check out games and I'll get to play in Dallas and Houston [near Dempsey's hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas], and you have Christmas and Thanksgiving. So family was a big thing.
But I also wanted to come back when I was in my prime, not when I was past it. If I came back, I wanted to make an impact. I'm coming here to win an MLS Cup. I'm not coming here just to chill. I want to keep working hard and still do something special. You can see the MLS players, they still get looks in with the national team. They still compete against the European [-based] players and fight for spots, and some of the players have won positions in the starting 11.
I feel like I can still push myself here, and I want to get back a little bit to kind of like the old me. Because I grew up watching South American soccer. That's really what I enjoyed, being on the ball a little more, a little more creativity. It felt like when I went to Europe it kind of hindered that a little bit. It was more one- and two-touch and never lose the ball, that kind of thing. It helped me be more of a complete player and see the field better and make quicker decisions, but I feel like I have a good mix now, and I want to get back more to that creative style.
I'm also excited to be in Seattle. There are a lot of fans, top 30 in the world. Just look at the home game we're going to have, with 67,000. That's crazy. It'll be really cool.
SI.com: Did you have a heart-to-heart at one point with Tottenham manager André Villas-Boas?
Dempsey: I didn't. I really just had a heart-to-heart with my family, talked to my wife, to my mom and dad, to my brothers and my sister. And had a few sleepless nights just going over that decision and wanting to make sure I was making it for the right reasons, and that I felt good about it. You have to get that gut feeling that you're doing the right thing. It was good for me to be back with Tottenham in preseason and be around it to make that decision instead of being removed from it on vacation in the summer. I was able to be there, be in training and really think about it.
After I left, [Villas-Boas] sent me a really good text. He was happy with what I was doing and I was going to be part of his plans. He wished me the best. I'm grateful for him. He gave me an opportunity to see what it was like to play at a big club. So I'll always be grateful for that, just to get that experience. It's one of those things where you're always, What if? What would that be like? I know what it was like. So that brings me peace. The only thing is, yeah, I would have liked to play Champions League, and maybe that will happen one day, maybe it won't. But for me the biggest thing was being in the World Cup, and that gave me the itch to leave MLS and play against that on a consistent basis. I was over there for six-and-a-half years, so I felt like I've been over here, I've been successful, the opportunity has come up now. It's the right moment, the right situation, an offer you can't refuse type of thing. So I'm happy with it.
SI.com: When talks first started in MLS, you were interested in a few different teams. At what point did it become Seattle Seattle Seattle?
Dempsey: As it got closer toward agreeing terms and all that, it was between pretty much two or three teams, really, to where I was going to go. Seattle made the biggest push. They wanted me the most. You want to be somewhere you're valued and appreciated. I don't think I could have made a better decision. Walking out on that field before the Dallas game and the reception I got, I've never felt so welcome and so at home right off the jump anywhere during my whole career. So I'm excited about playing in front of those fans.
It was easy to make a transition into that team also, because they have Shalrie Joseph, who I've played with and really rate as a player, and Eddie Johnson, who's having a good season; Marcus Hahnemann, who I've played with; Brad Evans, who I've played with; Marc Burch from the youth national teams together. So it was an easier transition knowing you have friends on the team. Sigi [Schmid, the Seattle coach], every time I was in national team camp you hear players talk about coaches, and they always talk good about him. Seattle really made the push and wanted me there.
SI.com: You're a big fisherman. Which lake are you going to live on in Seattle?
Dempsey: What's that lake, Lake Washington? That's a big lake. We're living near Lake Washington. Just going to rent a place there with my wife and the kids. I'm looking forward to doing some fishing, maybe getting into fly fishing and doing more outdoor stuff. We'll see how it goes. I've never really been a hiker, but I want to try something different. I also wanted to raise my kids in the States with the same kind of upbringing I had. You know, tee-ball and flag football and soccer. So I'm excited about that.
SI.com: I've been told Seattle expects you to use your option to go on loan to a European club in January. What kind of team would you prioritize if you decide to do it: A team in Champions League that might be outside England, or an English Premier League team?
Dempsey: I think that's a bridge you have to cross when you get there. Right now my focus is with Seattle and wanting them to know that's my main objective, trying to help them be successful and win an MLS Cup. [A European loan] is something for down the road, you know what I mean?
SI.com: How do you think your first game with Seattle [a 2-1 at Toronto] went on Saturday?
Dempsey: I thought it went pretty good. Obviously, you'd like to score a goal or get an assist, but I got some good touches. Unfortunately, I went on because [Obafemi Martins] got hurt. That's never good, but hopefully Oba will be back soon, because he's definitely a big player for the team. It was good to get some touches and play with Eddie and Shalrie, and we created some good chances. Hopefully I can start getting more looks on goal and start putting it in the back of the net. And the team's on a good run of form.
SI.com: You're not going to be with the U.S. team on Wednesday. It would have been your 100th cap, which will be a big deal when it happens. Did you want to go this week?
Dempsey: It was a situation where we're doing a lot of travel, and to be fair, was I fit enough to go a full 90 and have a strong performance? Or was I playing enough that it merited me going in? I only played two preseason games. One was 60 minutes in the rain on a drenched field, and I got a good 45 minutes in the second game. And since then it's been a whirlwind with travel and so on. I got 65 minutes in the last game [on Saturday]. I'm trying to build my fitness and get my sharpness, and to be honest I wasn't playing enough and well enough, I'd say, that it merited me getting called in.
SI.com: The August FIFA date is always awkward with the European club season starting.
Dempsey: It's awkward for everyone, really. For the European players, they don't want to get hurt, because it's the beginning of their season. They don't want to miss out on the training leading up to the first game, and they hope it doesn't hurt their chances. Depending on where the game is, it hurts you more than others. If we'd had the game in the States it would hurt the team more, because you play a game on Wednesday, fly on Thursday, get in Friday morning, have a game on Saturday and have to show your stuff. If you don't show your stuff, you can find yourself out of the team for two or three weeks. That's just how it goes when you're an international player. It definitely makes being successful on the club level more difficult, I think.
SI.com: Have you had a chance to talk to Klinsmann since you made the decision to go to Seattle?
Dempsey: Just text. He said he wasn't going to bring me in for this game, but he was looking forward to making history in Costa Rica [in the World Cup qualifier on Sept. 6. The U.S. has never won in Costa Rica in nine tries] and making sure we book our tickets to Brazil [for the World Cup]. I'm excited about getting my 100th cap, and hopefully we do make history in Costa Rica.
SI.com: The U.S. has a record 11 straight wins right now, including the World Cup qualifiers and Gold Cup going back to the friendly win over Germany in early June. What's going so well right now?
Dempsey: I think confidence. We're on a good run of form. We've really been playing well since all the controversy that happened around that camp in Denver [around the story written by Brian Straus about issues within the team]. I think that brought us closer as a team. We talked about things. We've done a better job of being more compact defensively, being difficult to break down. I don't think we've been conceding as many goals, or easy goals, and that's helped. We've been scoring goals, no matter who seems to be playing. It's good to have Jozy [Altidore] scoring goals again, good to have Landon [Donovan] back in the team scoring goals again. [Chris] Wondolowski was on fire scoring. That's what you need, clean sheets and goals. That's the trick.
SI.com: Klinsmann has talked about wanting U.S. players to play at the highest possible level. Is there any concern on your part that he was silent about your move for nine days after it happened? [Note: Klinsmann made his first comments on Dempsey's Seattle move after this interview happened on Monday morning]
Dempsey: Not really. I mean, it's one of those things that as a professional you have to make tough decisions. You have to do what you think is best for you and your family. Depending on that, sometimes some people might not agree with it. Some people will agree with it. But as long as you feel good and you can keep playing at a high level, I think you're fine. Because you can find yourself on a big team and then not playing. Is that really helping you out? You could find yourself on a big team playing all the time, and that's the ideal situation.
You can find yourself in a big league but playing on a team that doesn't play good soccer. My first year at Fulham, our backs weren't even allowed to pass to our midfielders. So you're just bypassing them and playing longballs.
Dempsey: Yeah. When the manager was Lawrie Sanchez, they didn't want us playing through the midfield. So you could be playing on a team like that and not playing good soccer, and that won't help you. So as long as you're feeling confident and working hard and you're sharp and making the right decisions, it's shown that whatever league you're in, especially MLS, players have shown they were good enough. They got their chance to come into camp and fight with the European players for spots. Sometimes they've won spots and been able to be in the starting 11 for World Cup qualifiers. I'm not worried about that. I'm just going to keep working hard. I'm not coming to take my foot off the gas and chill. I'm coming back to stay on the ground like I've always been. I'm just going to be grinding in the States. That's the way I look at it.
I think the league has gotten better. I just look forward to the challenge of coming back and being in my prime and playing in the league that gave me the chance. I think it's good for kids to see homegrown talent in their league. If you look around at other leagues that's what you see. And you're starting to see American players being revered in more of a positive light and more respected. It's good to have that, especially in your own country. Because I felt like in the beginning it wasn't always that way. It was more about international players coming in. Now you're seeing more American players get the love and the respect. It shows that it's growing, and the quality is getting there.
SI.com: Was there a moment when you told your family: We're going back to MLS?
Dempsey: There were moments before that when the decision was actually made. It was kind of a ball-in-motion type of thing: What do you think about it? Let's talk about it. Are you sure you want to do that? Are you going to miss being in the league over here? Would you think about going to any other leagues? We talked about everything. It was one of those things where as it got closer to a deal being agreed and terms where everything was finalized, it was kind of like if this happens we're that much closer. It was always kind of moving in a direction, so there wasn't a moment where like, wow, it's happened, what a shock.
SI.com: There was some fun secrecy stuff surrounding your arrival in Seattle before the announcement. What is the craziest thing you've seen so far in Seattle as far as fan response to you?
Dempsey: The fact everybody was trying to figure out what was going on. There was enough buzz that people were interested in what I was doing in San Francisco [at the airport on his way to Seattle]. I think it was funny that Taylor [Twellman of ESPN, Dempsey's former New England teammate] was saying, 'Oh, he must be going to Everton!' But there was secrecy involved, and I think that made it easier also. Because it wasn't like I was having a lot of conversations with coaches or with players or teammates.
It's one of those things, you were able to make your decision with your family, and you won't talk to someone to have them sway your opinion. So it's almost kind of easier that way, because you don't have to defend your decision if someone doesn't agree with it. It's almost like, what are you going to name your kid? You tell somebody, and they're either going to be, 'I really like that!' or 'Oh, that's ... nice.' You know what I mean? You can tell it's one of those things that you don't want to talk about, because you know someone will have an opinion. And once you've made your decision, you don't want someone to tell you they don't agree with it. It was easier in that respect, but it was cool to try to keep it a secret for as long as we could keep it. That's what everybody wanted it to be. Unfortunately, it slipped out a little bit, but it was still a pretty cool thing.