The sight of the U.S. international captain removing his hoodie and revealing his Seattle jersey on Saturday must have prompted some introspection from ambitious clubs.
There is only one Clint Dempsey, after all, but there are other stars capable of exerting similar influence on and off the field. And the prospect of securing such a glittering star – the sort capable of moving the needle in a variety of ways – harkens back to the days when David Beckham first crossed the Atlantic.
Beckham's arrival provided exactly the sort of moment of reckoning prompted by Dempsey's sudden move to the Pacific Northwest. Sure, it's nice when a big star joins the league. It boosts the competition on the whole and it draws attention to every club in one form or another. But it also underscores the vast gulf between the select group of clubs able and willing to make such decisive moves and the restricted remainder poised to just watch from the sidelines.
Seattle leaned on its primary advantage over the rest of the league – an average gate of 40,000 or so (nearly double the regular haul of second-placed Los Angeles) and the corresponding additional revenue generated – to procure Dempsey's services for the next four years. The exact financial details remain a matter of some debate, but the significance of the outlay – a respectable transfer fee and the correspondingly lucrative contract – never came into doubt. And Sounders FC possessed the capability to justify such largesse based upon the revenue generated and the resources created by its success off the field.
No team in MLS can match those particulars in their totality, but a handful of investor/operators remain willing to test the waters nonetheless. Seattle may boast more resources than any other side strictly from its soccer operations. Other teams, however, can point to the bankroll of their backers as they weigh whether to dabble in such expensive measures.
Los Angeles remains at the forefront of the discussions, though it is hard to fathom a similar outlay with Tim Leiweke (more on him in a moment) in Toronto. The mooted interest in Giovani dos Santos – a player likely as expensive, if not more so, than Dempsey at this juncture – earlier this summer reinforced the Galaxy's desire to evaluate all of its options at the deep end of the pool. Its willingness to shell out market level salaries to Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane above and beyond the run-of-the-mill Designated Player deal places the Galaxy above most of its competitors in this department.
New York and Toronto FC join the Galaxy in that rarefied air with their desire to wield the resources of their wealthy patrons. Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry serve as reminders of the Red Bulls' capabilities in this department. The right player – particularly one capable of selling energy drinks in the proper markets (see: Marquez, Rafa) – can prompt action in Harrison and Salzburg. TFC boasts a relatively modest record in terms of DP expenditures in terms of salary commitments in comparison with New York and Los Angeles, but Leiweke could inspire the impetus required to clinch a multi-million dollar signing. The recent pursuit of Diego Forlan – a player unlikely to join MLS for a pittance – underscored the Reds' ambition in this department.
Most other sides in the league operate within their means and swoop for players in relatively august fashion. Some teams push their limits and wring every possible dollar out of their revenue streams to invest in the squad. Other teams dabble in the market and look for a bargain. Most approach potential additions on a case-by-case basis and weigh whether the signing constitutes a necessary use of investor/operator funds.
And few, if any, of the last group of teams – really, any sides other than the four mentioned by name – can even contemplate sealing a move of this magnitude. MLS grows markedly with each passing year, but it is not the sort of league where clubs can spend wantonly without suffering considerable consequences. Those sides must ponder their priorities and set out a strategy capable of maintaining balance on and off the field.
For most of them, those deliberations will lead them to resist the urge to make such a significant splash. Dempsey's arrival may spark an idea in one or two boardrooms around the league, but it won't start a trend. Not even a prominent transfer can change the well-established equilibrium and prudence preceding it.
Five Points – Week 23
1. Assessing the internal Dempsey knock-on effects: The arrival of a highly compensated teammate disrupts the pecking order within the ranks and emboldens the comparably lesser paid contributors to speak up on their own behalf. Obafemi Martins foreshadowed the deliberations to come at CenturyLink Field when he took to Twitter to urge Seattle to award Eddie Johnson with a new deal in line with his production. Johnson warrants a new pact after taking a modest offer from MLS at the start of last season, but Sounders FC's salary budget flexibility – always modest at best – may leave little room for a bump at any point soon. And the prospect of Dempsey's lucrative arrival causing some unrest within the ranks ensures Sigi Schmid will have some managing to do in that department as the season winds to a close.
2. Assessing the external Dempsey knock-on effects: MLS enters the final year of its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players Union next season. The league just watched its flagship club shell out millions and millions of dollars on one player. It also operates within a stated salary budget of $2.95 million per team, though the actual expenditures exceed that number by quite a bit given the exceptions involved. Expect MLSPU officials to highlight the disparity between the Dempsey move and the comparably paltry sums expended on a team-by-team basis as they push for a substantial, across the board increase in the salary budget in time for the 2015 season. MLS will inevitably chalk up the Dempsey deal as an outlier (and it is) and highlight the arrival of four more clubs through the end of the decade (MLS commissioner Don Garber already noted the prospect of more jobs last week, a key messaging point ahead of these discussions) in an attempt to undercut those arguments a bit as the two sides jockey for leverage and position.
3. New York teaches Sporting Kansas City a timely lesson ahead of its Champions League bow: Sporting chases the game ardently, particularly at home. Its suffocating pressure usually produces the corresponding results. Opposing teams attempt to blunt its effects by surviving those measures and waiting for the opportune moment to counter. New York offered a masterclass in the tactic in its 3-2 victory at Sporting Park on Saturday and supplied a pertinent reminder to the home side about the potential ramifications of its aggressiveness in the process. Sporting will encounter more of the same as it embarks upon its continental voyage. It must adapt accordingly and stop firing from anywhere and everywhere (and losing possession in the process) to sidestep a similar fate in the future.
4. Colorado finally claims the Rocky Mountain Cup: The final match of the season between these two bitter rivals involved more than a few foibles (a penalty kick delayed for the better part of an hour due to weather?) and four goals. The home side emerged with a compelling 2-2 draw to secure bragging rights in the series for the first time since 2006.
5. Bottom feeders rise to the top: Credit D.C. United (2-1 winners over Montréal on Saturday) and Toronto FC (1-0 victors at New England on Sunday) for taking care of business this weekend. It isn't easy to stick to the task when results remain in short supply. TFC's modest resurgence (seven points from the past three games) offers hope for all of the straggling sides as they proceed through the second half of the campaign.