SEATTLE — For the past few seasons playing in England, even as he participated in a Europa League final with Fulham and was on the cusp of a Champions League berth at Tottenham Hotspur, Clint Dempsey felt the pull to come back to America grow stronger.
He didn’t want to be an aging player on the back side of his career when he finally made the decision to return to Major League Soccer.
“I was already starting to get the itch to be honest with you, to come back to the States. I just missed being in America. I wanted to help continue the growth of the game here. You can’t help the growth of the game if you come back and you don’t perform,” Dempsey said Monday after he was formally introduced as the newest designated player for the Seattle Sounders.
“I understand there is a lot of pressure on me to succeed, a lot of expectations that others have on me, but also the expectations I put on myself and when I decided to come back to this league, I want to make an impact. I want to do a good job. I don’t want to come and be passive and not be able to make a difference in games. I want to win things.”
That pull was at the heart of Dempsey’s decision to have his representatives reach out to MLS in late July and start the process that was finalized over the weekend when Dempsey signed with the Sounders, bringing back arguably the best American player currently to play for his domestic league.
Even though they’re not currently in the playoffs, it also makes Seattle an instant contender for the MLS Cup.
Less than 48 hours after he was greeted with a huge ovation from the nearly 40,000 fans in attendance Saturday night at Seattle’s game against FC Dallas, Dempsey was finally able to fully explain the reasons behind his surprising move.
While giving up the chance to stay in the Premier League was difficult, Dempsey felt it was the right time to come back to MLS, where his career began with the New England Revolution.
“I’ve been in Europe for 6 ½ years and I just wanted to come home. Each year was getting more difficult to go back and I think everything just has to do with timing,” Dempsey said. “The Seattle Sounders moved mountains to get me here. It was an opportunity to come back when I was in my prime and continue growth in the league and it’s a challenge.”
The 30-year-old Dempsey played for the New England Revolution from 2004-06 before joining Fulham in 2007. He moved to Tottenham last summer and scored 12 goals in 43 games, but wasn’t a regular starter for the Spurs while being used in rotation with other attacking players. Dempsey had two years remaining on his contract at Tottenham.
Dempsey said he has yet to talk with U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann about the move and a step back in competition level from what he would get staying in the Premier League.
“I look back with no regrets. I thought my time over there, if you want to crunch numbers, I was successful. I want to continue to do the same here,” he said.
The process for getting Dempsey to Seattle didn’t take long but was filled with potential stumbles.
MLS first informed Seattle general manager and co-owner Adrian Hanauer and fellow Seattle owner Joe Roth of Dempsey’s interest in late July. For the past two years, Hanauer and Roth had Dempsey at the top of their wish list and suddenly the chance to acquire him was real.
While Dempsey was jetting between London and Hong Kong for an Asian tour with Tottenham, his representatives were pulling together a deal with Seattle, plus a transfer fee paid to Tottenham to bring Dempsey back beneath the MLS umbrella.
The final stages of the negotiation were set into motion last Thursday when Dempsey was first spotted by fans boarding a flight at Heathrow Airport in London and later making a connection in San Francisco. When he arrived in Seattle, Dempsey was slipped out a back door of the airport and avoided a throng of Sounders fans who had converged for a chance to see if the rumors were true.
Dempsey went unnoticed, but Hanauer never exhaled until Friday night when Dempsey finally signed the contract.
“There were some anxious moments to some degree in that,” Hanauer said. “Again, I’m kind of a worrier.”
The move to get Dempsey, coupled with the acquisition of forward Obafemi Martins earlier this season backed up what Roth had told supporters last offseason after Seattle lost in the Western Conference finals to Los Angeles. Roth promised to pay back fans for the unprecedented support the Sounders have received.
While Seattle could see increased interest because of Dempsey’s acquisition, Hanauer said the team didn’t view this as a profitable move.
“This is for soccer,” Hanauer said. “This is to win a championship, raise the profile domestically, globally, pay our fans back for their support. … 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.”