Leander Schaerlaeckens: Moving to a big club carries risk for American high-flyer Clint Dempsey

Clint Dempsey could get his chance to play at a European giant, but the U.S. national team may suffer if it happens.
At present, there ought not exist any debate that Fulham’s Clint Dempsey is the greatest American soccer player of all time. With respect to the likes of Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan, nobody born in the 50 states and territories has performed at such a high level for as long as has Dempsey, whose Premier League goal tally has reached 28 over the last two seasons alone.

This greatness, forged on the glowing embers of a burning ambition, has taken Deuce from Nacogdoches, Texas, to the rarefied atmosphere of professional soccer, where he is getting long overdue acclaim for his game.

But even for great men there are limits. Dempsey has barreled through several glass ceilings already – careening from Texas to tiny Furman University to the New England Revolution to Fulham – but cracking one more might be taking it too far. This summer and the next, Dempsey will have a chance to break through the last boundary for the American soccer player: playing for a world class club.

His 16 Premier League goals so far this season are more than any Fulham player has ever scored, more than any American has ever scored in that league, more than a player whose skill-set and ideal position are as of yet to be fully defined was thought capable of.

His contract is up in the summer of 2013, and players who demur on renewing their contracts – as Dempsey so far has – are usually sold a year before their deals expire so as to fetch a decent transfer fee. This summer, in other words, will tell us whether Dempsey will re-up and stay, or refuse to and go.


The question becomes where ambition bleeds into folly. How much is too much for Dempsey?

He has been unabashed about his desire to play in the Champions League, having already made it to a Europa League final with Fulham. Understandably, he wants to see just how far this unlikely career will stretch. But there’s an inherent downside to joining, say, Arsenal, which has been rumored to be interested.

There have been a great many players who proved great on mediocre teams but mediocre on great teams. Typically, they have spent the bulk of their careers with those smaller clubs, are already at their peak and play in highly competitive positions, like in midfield or up front. Dempsey, who turned 29 last month, checks all of those boxes. These players spend a few years making sporadic first-team appearances for their rich and famous employers, become cornerstones only for the reserve teams and then rejoin a club of similar repute to the one they abandoned for their big shot.

We have long since learned not to bet against Clint Dempsey, but you wonder, is joining a club that big worth the risk?

Because the risks are many.

Like U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu before him, Dempsey could join a truly big club. But like Gooch at AC Milan, he could find himself outside the plans of a new coach and relegated to the margin. Dempsey, unlike a player in his early or mid-20s, can’t afford to sit out a season or two. These are his best years. He needs to play – to sustain his form and lengthen the apex of his career. If he joined a bigger club and lost out in a positional battle or was rotated through the squad every few weeks, he’d likely regress and never quite recapture his current form, which has been many seasons in the making.

The U.S. national team, for that matter, is better off with Dempsey playing every weekend for a mid-table club than it is if he plays every other week for a major club. If Dempsey rode the pine for the next two years, the U.S.’s chances at the 2014 World Cup would be diminished.

Having started from square one – the bench – under four successive coaches at Fulham, Dempsey is now one of the centerpieces of, and has thrived in, Martin Jol’s adventurous system, which deploys as many as three attacking players in a free role – usually Dempsey, Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembele.

Leaving a club which tailors its style to him could further harm Dempsey’s career, even if he did manage to become a regular at a bigger club. No other manager will give him as much leeway as Jol does now. No other situation will fit him as well.

Leveraging interest from other clubs into a fat extension from Fulham is the safest bet Dempsey can make.

But in the end, Deuce will be Deuce. He’s seldom shied away from betting heavily on himself. And that’s never meant playing it safe