By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — Instead of coming to Seattle with Tottenham Hotspur FC, one of the top clubs in English Premier League, Clint Dempsey will be playing a home game Saturday with the Sounders against his former club.
It’s been nearly a year since Dempsey stunned the soccer world by leaving London-based Tottenham to return to Major League Soccer. But even if some time has passed, the fact that the Sounders are playing with and not against Dempsey on Saturday is still a remarkable coup for the team and the league.
Because MLS and the Sounders have established themselves as legitimate players in the global soccer world, and yes, because Seattle wrote a very substantial check, this game isn’t being billed as “U.S. star Clint Dempsey and Tottenham come to Seattle.” Rather. it’s a game that features one of America’s top players, sill in his prime, facing the European club he left behind.
It’s a reunion Dempsey is downplaying this week. “Whatever team you play for, you represent the best you can and try to win games wherever you’re at, and for me that’s Seattle,” he said. But the reunion is an important one nonetheless for what it signifies.
With Dempsey playing at an MVP level, and with the Sounders on top of the standings by a comfortable margin, it’s easy now to reflect on last year’s signing and look at it as a no-brainier for a player who got a ton of money — he’s making an MLS-high $6.7 million this season — and for a team who landed a star capable of helping it get over the hump.
However, both sides took a considerable risk a year ago. Dempsey, who was 30 at the time, was playing for one of the better teams in one of the top leagues in the world. MLS would be there for him down the road, so why come back before he had to, especially right before a World Cup year? And as good as Dempsey had been in England, particularly during his time with Fulham before going to Tottenham, there was no guarantee that he’d live up to the hype and the contract in Seattle, both on the field and in the role of the face of a franchise.
“Look, we knew Clint is a fantastic player, but obviously you never know how guys will fit into the team and the organization,” said Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer. “Clint has over-delivered in every aspect.
“He’s a great teammate; he’s a great representative of the badge; he’s a great community member; and he’s a great global ambassador. Obviously with the World Cup and the success he and the U.S. had there, he’s done great things for MLS overall, which ultimately has an effect of helping the Sounders, whether it’s going on the Dave Letterman show, or accepting an ESPY or some of his endorsement deals, or just how good of an interview he is and how humble he is, and the fact that he’s very good about always mentioning the Sounders and the city of Seattle. Then obviously on the field for us he’s a game-changer and he’s super entertaining.”
Dempsey came back for plenty of reasons beyond the paycheck.
He’s much closer to family and friends in his hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas, than he was in England. He was wowed by the atmosphere he experience in Seattle when he played here in a World Cup qualifier last June and he also expressed a desire to help grow the sport of soccer back home.
Both Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who signed with Toronto in the offseason, have accomplished a lot towards that last goal. Soccer has never been bigger in the U.S. than it was during this past World Cup. Throughout America’s run in the tournament, we saw a team led by a number of MLS players, including Bradley and Dempsey, who both left Europe long before their skill level forced them to.
“It had to get to a point at some stage where U.S. players, especially players in their prime, need to come back to the MLS,” said Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel, an American who is beginning his 18th season in England. “It’s good to have some players in Europe and some playing here, but I think it was a big statement when Clint came back and also a big statement when Michael Bradley went to Toronto.
“They’re two players who had many years of playing in Europe left in them if they wanted it. I thought it was fantastic (MLS was) able to lure those players back … The league is doing incredible well. The talk around the rest of the world and the interest that people have in MLS is at its highest peak that it’s ever been. It’s nice to be an American over there now where people take an interest in what we’re doing over here.”
No, Dempsey isn’t here with Tottenham this week, but he could be, and that’s important.