By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — There’s an old quote about Clint Dempsey that helps explain how he went from a childhood in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches — hardly a soccer hotbed — to a career that has seen him become one of the best players this country has ever produced.
“He tries (stuff),” Bruce Arena once said when he coached a young Dempsey on the U.S. national team, though he used a more colorful word than stuff.
It’s a way of saying that Dempsey has the audacity, as well as the skill, to attempt things few other athletes in his sport could think to try, let alone pull off. When Dempsey tries “stuff,” it doesn’t always work out, but when it does, the results can be spectacular.
And in bringing Dempsey to Seattle in one of the highest-profile signings in league history, the Sounders, like their new star, are trying, um, stuff.
They have the audacity, and in this case, financial wherewithal, to try something few teams in Major League Soccer could think to try, let alone pull off. It may not always work out, but if it does, the results could be spectacular.
It’s the prefect marriage of bold player and bold club, both of whom aren’t afraid of taking risks, and both of whom are taking a big one here — the Sounders in the sheer amount of money, and Dempsey in his decision to leave one of the top leagues in the world years before anyone would have guessed a player of his caliber would.
In explaining his decision to come to Seattle while still in the prime of a career that most recently saw him playing for Tottenham, one of the top team’s in the English Premier League, Dempsey, 30, explained that he wanted to return to the league where he launched his career while he was still at the top of his game. And if he was coming back, Seattle was his No. 1 choice, having seen first-hand what kind of soccer city this is when he played here with the U.S. national team in June. And yes, he also had fun fishing with Sounders goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann on that trip. Dempsey also expressed the desire to raise his children back home, to be closer to his family, and said the itch to return to the states grew stronger each year he was away, establishing himself as one of the most successful Americans to ever play in England’s top league.
“I had two more years there, but I’d been in Europe for six and a half years,” Dempsey said at his introductory press conference at CenturyLink Field. “I just wanted to come home. I was starting to get that itch. Every year it was more difficult to go back. I think everything just has to do with timing. … It was an opportunity to come back when I was in my prime, help the continued growth of this league. It’s a challenge that I’m excited about.
“I understand there’s a lot of pressure on me to succeed.”
And yes, Dempsey also acknowledged, without actually saying it, that he’s back in the U.S. because the Sounders are paying him a whole bunch of money.
“The league and the Seattle Sounders organization showed a great commitment in making it happen,” said Dempsey, who could make his Sounders debut in Saturday’s game at Toronto. “They really moved mountains, because I was still in contract: I had two years left.”
While Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer would not comment on the details of Dempsey’s contract, which is reportedly worth $32 million over four years, plus a $9 million transfer fee paid to Tottenham, he did concede that, “This is a massive contract, a massive commitment from the club.”
Dempsey will certainly generate revenue for the Sounders and Major League Soccer, but in a league where TV rights are still tiny relative to those paid to the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA, there is less of a short-term windfall available to the Sounders or any other team that helps raise the profile of the league. Even if the Dempsey signing pays off in the form of an MLS title or two or three, there’s a good chance it will never be a profitable one.
And that’s why this move is so great for Sounders fans. After another playoff disappointment last season, majority owner Joe Roth promised fans the Sounders would spare no expense to bring a title to Seattle. By flexing their financial muscle to pry Obafemi Martins away from Levante when the Spanish club had no desire to lose him, and by now backing up a Brink’s truck full of money to convince Dempsey to leave Europe in his prime, the Sounders are putting considerable money where their mouth is. Combined the two signings represent new ground for a league that is used to selling its top players, not taking them from two of the biggest leagues in the world. And they are bold — and yes, risky — moves that serve as an appropriate reward for the fans who have helped redefine what soccer can be in America.
“You never know what’s going to happen with revenue, (but) we’re not counting on this being a profitable move,” Hanauer said. “This is for soccer. This is to win a championship, raise the profile domestically, globally, and pay our fans back for their support. I’m a big believer — I know Joe and Peter (McLoughlin, CEO and president of Vulcan Sports) are as well — that if you do good things as a business, the financial rewards will come down the line, so this feels like we’re doing the right things by our customers, our fans.”
When Sounders coach Sigi Schmid first saw Dempsey play for Furman University, he came away impressed enough to make a recommendation to Thomas Rongen, then the coach of the U.S. under-20 national team. That call helped launch a career that, to everyone’s surprise, brought him to Seattle.
“He had a cheekiness about him,” Schmid said of seeing Dempsey play on a rainy Charleston, S.C., night in the Southern Conference tournament more than a decade ago. “He had a cheekiness to his game. When I watched him play, I saw this guy who had decent size, but he’d try some stuff. He’d try stuff that you didn’t see a lot of players trying, and all of a sudden he’d beat somebody. And sometimes he overdid it, or sometimes it was on the wrong parts of the field where he tried it, but you could tell that there was something there, a quality there, that there was an inventiveness in his mind to his game. There was a risk to his game that, ‘I’m willing to take chances to succeed.’”
Just as Dempsey takes chances in his game, the Sounders are taking risks in order to, as Schmid put it “Continue to keep this club at the upper echelon. We’re not satisfied with being average, we want to be the best”
And there is nothing average about the signing they made last week. It’s bold, potentially game changing, and yes, risky. In other words, the Sounders are trying “stuff.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.