SEATTLE — The U.S. national team came to Seattle for a World Cup qualifier last June, then eventually its best two players, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, made their way back to Europe to join their club teams, because that’s what the best American soccer players not named Landon Donovan always have done.
Major League Soccer simply isn’t on par with Europe’s top leagues, and the money is almost always considerably better abroad, so if you’re as good as Dempsey or Bradley, you proudly represent the U.S. in international competition, then get the heck out when it comes to your day job.
Only now, nine months after that World Cup qualifier, Dempsey and Bradley will be on the same CenturyLink Field turf once again, but this time not as teammates, but rather as opponents in an MLS game when the Seattle Sounders host Toronto FC on Saturday.
Last summer, the idea of Bradley and Dempsey, currently the top to Americans in the game by just about any measure, facing off in an MLS game before, say, 2016, would seem laughable. Yet there they will be Saturday, playing for MLS teams while still in their primes.
Neither Dempsey, who was playing for England’s Tottenham Hotspur, nor Bradley, who was in Italy with AS Roma, came back to make a statement about Major League Soccer. Yet by coming back, they both did exactly that.
“It says a lot about the league, it says a lot about its growth,” said Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, another member of the national team. “Players are coming back at the right time, and especially heading into a World Cup year, it’s just an added bonus. We’ve always felt it’s a top quality league, and after this World Cup, I think you’ll see even more top-quality players coming over. Every year I think it’ll continue to do so, and we’re only going to grow.”
In the case of Dempsey and Bradley, their surprising moves from top European clubs to MLS represented a chance at a new challenge, playing where they’d be top dogs in a growing league rather that players battling for consistent minutes abroad. The desire to be closer to home also played a factor, as did, of course, huge paydays. But even if Bradley and Dempsey came home mostly to do what they believed was best for themselves, they’re also given a lot more credibility to the league where both got their starts in 2004.
“I was just doing what I thought was best for me and my family at that time,” Dempsey said. “What happens because of that, if anything good can come of it, well then that’s great. But for me, I was excited about coming back to the states, coming back to the league that gave me the opportunity to go pro in the first place and excited about coming to Seattle, which has some of the best fans in the league.”
Dempsey’s summer transfer from Tottenham by itself would have been huge for the league. The addition of Bradley, who at 26 still has plenty of his prime ahead of him, only added to the evidence that MLS, while still a long ways behind American’s top professional sports leagues, is rapidly gaining credibility. And while Bradley’s decision was his own, he did admit it caught his attention seeing his longtime national team midfield partner sign with Seattle.
“I certainly paid attention when Clint came back last summer,” Bradley said on a conference call. “It’s up to each and every guy to figure out in their career and their life what is best for them … I absolutely paid attention when Clint came back last summer, but at the end of the day every person has to make their own decision.”
The moves also showed a willingness of MLS and its teams to spend big — Dempsey’s transfer fee was reportedly $9 million and Bradley’s $10 million.
“It shows with the signing of Dempsey and the signing of Michael Bradley that our league’s made a commitment and gone forward to move in a direction that the league hadn’t moved in before in terms of bringing guys back when they’re still at the top of their career, still valuable and still playing well,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who has been coaching in the league since 1999.
To say MLS is on par with Europe’s top leagues would be a huge reach, but Saturday’s game will be a good sign that the gap is slowly shrinking. Really, until TV revenues increase significantly, and bring salaries way up with it, MLS always will be at a huge competitive disadvantage. But the sheer number of 2014 World Cup players potentially on display Saturday shows how much the league has grown.
Not only are big-money stars coming from Europe with plenty left in the tank — players like Dempsey, Bradley, Toronto forward Jermain Defoe and Sounders forward Obafemi Martins — the league also is developing more national team-caliber talent than ever. Evans, who was a regular on the U.S. team during World Cup qualifying, has a good chance at playing in Brazil, and even youngster DeAndre Yedlin has an outside shot at this World Cup, and a great chance to play in future World Cups.
Another sign of MLS growth was that the U.S. team that played against Ukraine, which was comprised entirely of European-based players other than Dempsey — the game was the same week as the MLS opening weekend — was noticeably weaker than the full-strength team that includes several MLS-based players.
“It’s definitely changed a lot,” Dempsey said of the league since he left for Europe in 2007. “The league has grown considerably, there are more soccer-specific stadiums, bigger crowds going out to games, more players who are top-quality playing on each team, so it makes it more exciting for the fans and for the players. We want this to be the best league possible because this is where we’re from.”
MLS still has a ways to go, but Saturday’s game between Toronto and Seattle is a good indicator of how far it has come.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.