By John Boyle Herald Columnist
The primary reason the Seattle Sounders signed Clint Dempsey was on display for the first two months of the season as the forward scored eight goals in his first nine games, looking very worthy of being Major League Soccer’s highest paid player.
But another reason why Dempsey was a significant signing both for the Sounders and Major League soccer was on display on newsstands and coffee tables around the country last week.
Wrapped in an American flag, sporting a goofy grin, there was Dempsey, the cover boy on Sports Illustrated’s 2014 World Cup preview issue.
With the World Cup kicking off in Brazil this week, the face of American soccer is a Seattle Sounder, a pretty significant moment even for a franchise that already has been wildly successful on and off the field since joining Major League Soccer in 2009.
“For sure we knew we were getting a player who first and foremost could help us win, and hopefully help us win championships,” Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer said. “But we also knew we were getting a player who is clearly an important player to the United States of America, and an important player to our overall brand and the growth of soccer in MLS.”
Everybody who identifies with one of the 32 countries in the World Cup field already has a rooting interest in tournament. For Puget Sound region soccer fans, however, the presence of Dempsey as well as Sounder DeAndre Yedlin, who not only plays for the Sounders, but grew up in Shoreline and attended Seattle’s O’Dea High School, helps localize the biggest sporting event in the world.
This World Cup figures to be a very different experience for the two Sounders involved. While Dempsey, who is playing in his third World Cup, is one of the team’s biggest stars, a lock to be in the starting lineup, the 20-year-old Yedlin was a somewhat surprising pick for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and is unlikely to see a ton of playing time barring injuries to his teammates.
To put in another way, Dempsey’s earliest memories of watching a World Cup occurred seven years before Yedlin was born. As a very young fan of the game, Dempsey watched Diego Maradona lead Argentina to the championship and began to understand just how important the game was to the rest of the world.
“That was pretty special for me, because I really loved the game, but here I am in Nacogdoches, Texas, where not many people are passionate about the sport as I am. And then I’m looking on TV seeing people from all over, from all these different countries that have the same passion that I do, and they’re willing their team on,” Dempsey said. “That’s when I fell in love with it and wanted to one day be on that stage and represent my country. I mean what could be more special than that?”
And while nobody is comparing Dempsey to Maradona, one of the greatest to ever play the game, he is in a position to inspire young fans in a country where the sport has grown significantly since he was that little kid watching in Nacogdoches. While a kid in the 80s would have few, if any, big-name American players to look up to — the U.S. was in the midst of a decades-long World Cup drought back then — this year’s World Cup features star power on the U.S. roster in the form of players like Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who both returned to MLS within the last year. And there are also MLS players representing six other countries, and that doesn’t include Spanish star David Villa, who signed with New York City FC, which will join the league in 2015.
“I just think it’s indisputable that the league is growing and improving,” Hanauer said. “It’s not only U.S. national team players, but national team players for other teams in the World Cup, whether it’s Honduras or Costa Rica, Brazil, Iran, Australia … It’s fantastic.
“The World Cup gives soccer, all over the world, a bit of rocket fuel every four years, and our rocket fuel is having more of those players playing in the World Cup, which legitimizes our league more and more, which makes it a better place for people to come to from all over the world, and makes it a better league for fans to support from all over the world.”
And while Dempsey is the Sounder providing star power for the U.S. in Brazil, Seattle’s youngster on the squad, Yedlin, represents something that might be just as important. Yedlin, while always an accomplished player, wasn’t marked for stardom early. He was left off the national team at the youth level for most of his career. He developed domestically, played college soccer at Akron and is now the first MLS “homegrown” signee to play in a World Cup.
“For all the kids in our academy, for the kids in the Seattle area, they can look at it and say, ‘Hey there’s a path here,’” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “There’s a path that not only leads to professional soccer, but a path that can lead to the World Cup as well.”
As Hanauer notes, success stories like Yedlin’s can help convince top young athletes in this country to choose soccer more than they have in the past, which ultimately will be the only way the U.S. can compete with the top countries in the world. So if Dempsey is the U.S. national team’s present, its star power at the 2014 World Cup, Yedlin might represent the potential for the country’s future success.
That both happen to play for the Sounders is just the latest accomplishment for the franchise that raised the bar on what professional soccer can be in this country.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.