No regrets - Dempsey finds peace back home with Seattle Sounders

U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey has passed up on his Champions League dreams for the comforts Major League Soccer has to offer
Imagine for a minute that Clint Dempsey is an average American.

He works a normal job, has a wife, kids, a wider family he loves to spend time with and the wide-ranging respect of peers in his field. He works for a prestigious company, makes a good living and will be able to provide the comforts of life to those he loves.

Imagine that you don’t know his name. That you don’t know the ins and outs of his job, that you don’t watch him perform that job, and that the media doesn’t care when he does well, or when he does poorly.

But Clint Dempsey is not average, not by a long shot.

From January 2007 until August 2013, Dempsey was the standard bearer for American footballers, carrying the banner with him on pitches across Europe, and doing it with an unabashed, unapologetic style that made him stand out as both the most dangerous and the most uncontrollable player this country had ever sent over the Atlantic. He fought his way onto the field at Fulham, fought his way to being a star not only at the club, but in one of the top leagues in the world. He fought his way out of the Cottage and into one of the top teams in England.

And then, suddenly and with as little warning as possible, that banner was no longer his to carry. The night the Twitter world exploded and #DempseyWatch2013 became a thing on social media, it was taken with a grain of salt. Surely this wasn’t real. Clint Dempsey returning to Major League Soccer in his prime? Where is this coming from? This can’t be real.

But for Dempsey, it was real.

In late August, as he left his vacation home in North Carolina for London to join up with Tottenham, Dempsey first found out there was an opportunity to return to MLS, with a substantial amount of money possibly on the table. He went back to London, still fairly sure that he would be with Tottenham for the 2013-14 season, but the idea of a move back to MLS grew with every passing day.

“It was almost like a snowball effect,” the 30-year-old Dempsey told Goal.

Spurs, with Dempsey in tow, made a preseason trip to Hong Kong, and the move continued to gain traction, even with the time difference making the sharing of information harder than it would have been had he been in England or the United States. By the time Dempsey and Tottenham returned to London, the U.S. national team captain was waiting on the final word that a deal was on the table.

That word finally came and Dempsey headed back to his homeland. Because of the late notice and the lack of direct flights to Seattle from London, Dempsey had a layover in San Francisco, and by the time he finally landed in the home of the Sounders, the biggest story of the summer in American soccer was starting to shape up.

“As you traveled to each place the snowball kept getting bigger and bigger, and you started getting closer towards the goal,” Dempsey says. “The final details were ironed out the day before the unveiling.”
Upon the announcement of Landon Donovan's new contract with the LA Galaxy, the USA star made mention of how the 2013 trend of American players getting paid handsomely in MLS has been a tipping point for the league. Clint Dempsey's unprecedented deal with MLS and the Seattle Sounders was the apex.

MLS is no longer just a place where notable Americans who either could not find gigs in Europe or were on the downsides of their careers generally would go. Instead, it is a place that is not only a safe haven of a league growing in quality but also a destination that does not necessarily have a negative impact on a player's national team chances.

That may not jive with what U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants for his players, which is to test themselves at the highest possible level and push their limits. The times and marketplace are changing, though, and MLS is doing what it takes to keep its recognisable American talent on U.S. soil.

Every player's individual situation is different, and the financial windfall that Donovan, Dempsey and Omar Gonzalez are enjoying is not an across-the-board phenomenon for all Americans. But if Dempsey, the USA captain, can come to MLS on his own volition at this point in his career, then there really is nothing preventing other U.S. internationals or aspiring national team players from following suit.

- Avi Creditor | Goal USA

On Saturday, two days after touching down in Seattle, in front of a massive home crowd, the rumours and reports of the move were emphatically confirmed when Dempsey shed a grey hoodie to reveal a rave green Seattle Sounders jersey.

The logistics of player transfers are always complicated. One of this magnitude, with an ocean between clubs, is even harder. But for Dempsey the hectic times were just beginning.

After the unveiling came a press conference, a couple of days marred by a stomach illness, his first couple of training sessions with the Sounders, and then – a week after touching down in Seattle – a trip to Toronto for his first match with the club. That Saturday his debut came earlier than was planned, with an injury to Obafemi Martins forcing Dempsey to come on in the first half of a match that he probably wouldn’t have entered until much later under ideal conditions. But it was a first glimpse at MLS’s and Seattle’s new prize asset.

The next day he was on a flight to New York, where the Clint Dempsey Media Circus would get fully underway on Monday. A 7 a.m. wake-up call was followed by eight-and-a-half hours of media obligations and meetings with Major League Soccer. Next came his return to Seattle, to training, to his real job, and by Thursday Dempsey was back on a plane, headed south to play a game in his home state for the first time since the semifinals of the 2011 Gold Cup.

The Saturday night match came and went, with the Houston Dynamo stealing the thunder out of the hero of Nacogdoches’ trip home, but a few precious hours with his family – who all made the trip to BBVA Compass Stadium for the match – were a welcome relief from the chaos of the preceding two weeks. It was back to business on Sunday, with an endorsement stop in Dallas on the cards, and then on Monday it was back to Seattle to prepare for his home debut against the Portland Timbers. In the middle of all this are everyman problems.

So many little things need to be done. His home -- a rental -- and cars in London have to be dealt with and his furniture shipped to Seattle. James Skellend, a friend who works with his agent, has been instrumental in helping with the issues overseas, but the process is still a long way from being completed. In the States there’s the issue of finding a new home and a school for his children, along with getting all of the utilities set up and trying to make the house feel like a home, all while handling a schedule that has seen him travel across the better part of the country multiple times.

Still, it’s apparent that Dempsey is happy with his decision and starting to make a home in the Pacific Northwest. The city of Seattle has taken him in with open arms. He’s not just a big signing for MLS. Dempsey is a major signing in a city that has seen its sports teams rely largely on finding bargain deals and drafting well, but hasn't seen an influx of established stars in recent years.

“You go to Europe for two things: One, to play at the highest level possible, and two, to play in place where the game that you love is highly valued,” Dempsey said when asked what he makes of his revealing and the reception he’s gotten in Seattle.

“To come here, some of the best fans in the world -- I think top 30 in attendance -- it lets you know right there that you’re playing in one of the best markets for how they value the game - the game that you love, the game you grew up playing where people looked at you funny when told them what you wanted to be and what you wanted to do...That lets you know that you’re in the right place, where people feel as passionately about the game as you do. It’s about going on the field and playing the way you love the game. I think people will fall in love with that because people will see how passionate (I am).”

The passion for the game in Seattle is hard to rival in the States, and it’s safe to say that not many, if any, MLS clubs and their fans could roll out the red carpet for a star the way the Sounders and the city of Seattle have for Dempsey. He’s happy here, happy with his decision. As childhood friend Mike Villarreal, who is in Seattle to take in Dempsey’s home debut, puts it: “I feel like he’s just totally confident in the decision that he’s made. With that comes some kind of peace.”

It may run contrary to the Clint Dempsey you’ve come to expect. For so long he’s been the hard man, the grinder, the fighter, the ultra-competitive, ultra-ambitious star, and a move back to MLS seems to be something else entirely. But for Dempsey, the time was right.
Fulham 2006-12 184 50
Tottenham 2012-13 29 7

“(The Champions League) was one of my goals, but it wasn’t the goal,” he stresses when he’s asked about his well-publicised ambition to play in Europe’s top competition. “It was one of the reasons why I left Fulham, to try and play at the highest level possible and try to see what that was like. It was important for me to play at a top-four club, top-five club and see what that level was like.

“I can go home and look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what, I know what that experience is like, I know what it’s like to play on a team like that. I know what it’s like to deal with certain things you have to deal with there. I know the good things and the bad things of that.’ And by being in preseason when I’m making my decision to go back, I’m there in it, around it, seeing it every day, and knowing what I’m leaving behind and what I’m losing or gaining by going somewhere else. So for me, it gave me clarity by being there when I was making that decision.”

Seattle was an ideal landing spot.

The fan support is a big draw, but the quality in the team and the old friends on the roster did nothing to hurt the lure of playing in for the Sounders. Star striker Eddie Johnson and Dempsey roomed together at the 2006 World Cup. Midfielder Shalrie Joseph and Dempsey did the same many times when the two were together with New England during Dempsey’s first stint in the league. Brad Evans has been a teammate of Dempsey’s with the USA, as has goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, and that familiarity helped make coming back to the States an easier transition.

“It’s good on two levels. It’s good to come back and play with people you’ve played with before, and it’s good to come back to a team that has quality, one that has players that have played in Europe and others that could play on that level,” Dempsey says. “Any time that in your job place, if you have people there that you get on with, it makes your time there more enjoyable. And you don’t have that with every team that you play for. There are times that you feel like you’re an outsider.

“The most important thing is how you get on as far as competing and playing in games and dealing with that kind of stuff, but I think for the best situation possible it needs to be both. It needs to be your relationship through playing the game and your relationship off the field.”

The initial fear from the U.S. soccer community at large was that Dempsey’s return to MLS would hurt his performance with the national team. With a World Cup on the horizon, the captain of the national team moving out of one of the top leagues in the world and coming back to play in a league that still has plenty to prove on the world stage could, understandably, seem like move in the wrong direction.

But Dempsey is supremely confident in the formula that has worked for him over the course of his career. The pressure of a record contract, or having to prove that he can maintain his high level of play for the national team while not playing in the Premier League don’t weigh on his mind. He knows what it took to get where he is, and he knows what it takes to live up to his own high standards.

“At the end of the day, all I know is I can try as hard as I can try,” he says. “And you just have to believe that your hardest is harder than someone else, that you’re pushing yourself harder than anybody else is.”

That’s the challenge now, making sure his standard stays the same, that he brings to Seattle what the club and the league paid so much for him to bring, and to keep his level of play high as his country prepares for another chance at World Cup glory.

“It’s just back on the grind,” he says. “You don’t ever stop. You always have to keep working hard and that never changes. I’ve always been somebody who’s been competitive and I want to win, and that’s not going to change. As long as you play well consistently and your form is good, you’ll always get looks with the national team.”

Three full weeks pass between Clint Dempsey’s unveiling in Seattle and his first game as a Sounder in front of the home crowd. He’s played twice for the team already, won once and lost once, but he hasn’t felt the energy of the home fans in full yet. In town for the night are the Portland Timbers, the biggest rival the Sounders have.

It makes for a perfect storm. The home team has a new star to show off, while the visiting team has the chance to ruin its rival’s big night in front of a massive crowd. From the outset the tone of the game is clear: This is not going to be an easy night for anybody on the pitch, including Dempsey, who is closely monitored by the Timbers.

He flashes brilliance at times. The “freedom” he’s so often mentioned in press conferences since returning to MLS shows itself on the field. A no-look pass to try and slip Eddie Johnson through here, a chicken-wing trap there, stopovers, bicycle kicks, some kind of ninja-kick attempt in front of goal, threaded through-balls played as defenders collapse around him, it’s all on display. Each touch draws a new round of applause from the home support.

The match is hard-fought, but Johnson heads home the game’s only goal in the second half, giving the Sounders three vital points in their push for the playoffs. It’s the icing on the cake.

The Sunday night crowd at CenturyLink Field is listed at 67,385 people. The cavern of an NFL stadium, the type that MLS has worked so hard to move teams out of throughout the history of the league, is needed on this occasion to house the second-largest stand-alone crowd in league history. For the Sounders and MLS, the early return on their investment is looking good.

There will be many home games to follow for Dempsey and the Sounders, and it’s unrealistic to expect the atmosphere from the Portland game to be repeated weekly. Even so, the fact that one midseason MLS game that doesn’t involve a foreign superstar can be such a massive draw is a win, and one that may well set the precedent for many other wins in the future.