MLS / Opinion

Clint Dempsey and the future of American soccer

Silly season became a shocking season on Saturday, when the Seattle Sounders unveiled Clint Dempsey as their newest signing. The move has sparked debate among American soccer fans about whether this a good or a bad move—or something somewhere in between. In an attempt to get an answer for myself, I tried to break this move down to its essential question: how does this change the future of American soccer?

1. Most American soccer fans, broadly speaking, have two long-term goals in mind when we talk about soccer in the States. One is the success of the national team, especially in the World Cup; the other is the growth of professional soccer in America to the point where we have a strong and well-attended domestic league, where there is general interest in the sport, and where soccer can be comfortably mentioned with the “big four” sports.

1a. To an extent, the first goal is also a means to accomplishing the second. The World Cup is the biggest stage in all of sports. An American team that plays well in the tournament and captures the attention of the country can lead, in turn, to long-term growth. (Just look at the health of MLS over the last three years, after Donovan’s epic game-winner at the death over Algeria.)

2. How do you make the domestic league—MLS—stronger? The main thing is acquiring talent at all levels: more talented homegrown American players, foreign imports with upside, and star players who are in the late-prime or tail end of their career.

2a. Of those three groups, the last group is the most important for drawing fan interest. While the league’s overall quality doesn’t rest on its core of stars, the casual fan is most easily engaged with superstar players—you can see the way attendance swells both in MLS (Beckham, Henry, Donovan) and other American leagues (LeBron) when star players visit as an away team.

3. Clint Dempsey has signed with Seattle Sounders of MLS after transferring from Tottenham Hotspur of the Barclays Premier League.

3a. Despite scoring 57 goals in the Premier League and 37 at the international level, not one team in England was willing to pay the $9 million transfer fee to acquire his services. (The Sounders, on the other hand, are driving several dump trucks worth of money up to his house—at $8 million per year, he’s now the highest paid player in MLS history.)

3b. Dempsey is the captain of the U.S. National Team and probably its most potent offensive weapon. He is, in the world of American soccer, a superstar.

4. With the World Cup just eleven months away, some have criticized Dempsey’s move back to MLS as a step down, potentially weakening his form ahead of the biggest tournament in sports—a tournament that the USMNT, under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, suddenly has a tremendous amount of momentum towards.

4a. Regardless, the United States are not going to win the 2014 World Cup.

4b. In June of 2014, the difference in form between Clint Dempsey after a club season playing semi-regularly for Tottenham and Clint Dempsey at the mid-point of an MLS campaign will be marginal—or, at least, small enough that it will not be the sole determinant of whether the U.S. advances out of the group stage of the World Cup.

5. The project of U.S. Soccer is a long-term one. Maybe the team performs slightly worse in Brazil next year. But I think that’s a fair trade for an acquisition that changes the trajectory of MLS and the game as a whole in this country. And if Dempsey remains in top form, it will help bury the idea that MLS is not an internationally competitive league.

In the long run, an American superstar in his prime returning to MLS is unquestionably a good thing for American soccer. Clint Dempsey will become the face of the league, his battles with Landon Donovan and other U.S. internationals driving media coverage and fan interest. And, like Beckham and Henry before him, Dempsey will continue to legitimize the league—only this time, it will be for young Americans who will one day grow up to replace him.



  1. Lets also remeber that clint has kids and may want them to grow up in the US. american schools over seas are great but being in america closer to family may be a priority for them.
    Without doubt I would rather have dempsey here playing and being successful. Bringing what its like to play overseas to a whole new group of players. If he is successful it opens the doors for others to stay longer and come back sooner.
    this is a great article and I just wish that he was suiting up for us. Hopefully this will precipitate other teams to look for ways to increase their own teams talent. thats for you hack and sac

  2. Jeremy Lane says:

    Agreed. For me, the only downside is not seeing Clint or another American play in the UCL. Not that Spurs was there, but he had a chance there, whereas in MLS he does not.

  3. I’m glad to see him back in MLS, but I’m confused as to why he didn’t have to go through the allocation process like all the other players? Or did Seattle have his rights or were next in the order?

    • hes a DP and the revs got a transfer fee so the murky rules state he does not go through any allocation. thats a novices understanding but i get the feeling MLS does not want any reason for a high skill player to not come back to the league due to the allocation order.

      • They make these things up on the fly…

      • Yep, that’s the impression I got earlier too. Whether those rules were always in place and just never vocalized, or they were put in place to help Seattle, is open to debate, it seems.

      • Jim Presti says:

        My understanding is that if a team is selling a player and receives a transfer fee in the process, the right of “first refusal” is forfeit. If there is a minimum amount required for the transfer fee, I don’t know,

  4. Can anyone wrap their mind around why the Union is content to be a floundering cesspool of mediocrity?
    Bimbo Bread
    This is pathetic. The Sounders have a great philosophy and winning attitude. We get an organization who does everything possible not win anything. If we happen to win a game or get a result that’s fine. However, the ultimate goal is not to compete for titles unless it’s by dumb luck with talentless, rudderless team!

    • Seattle has Paul Allen money. We have Jay Sugarman money. That is the difference.

    • And as Drew Carey said, the difference is that Seattle is owned by fans of the sport, not accountants. And, they don’t need to make money.

      • I certainly don’t discount their fandom, but the team could be owned by Pele and it wouldn’t matter nearly as much as being owned by people with endless money. The latter is surely the bigger factor than the former in the famous Drew Carey quote.

  5. I think Seattle overpaid, but that’s their privilege, to overpay. I would rather the U spend 8 million on 8 players at 1 million each, rather than 1 player for 8 million. Even better, how about bringing in the best coach available, and pay him the 8 million. That first half against Chicago was awful. A better coach would have the team playing better, with no changes in the roster. Think about it: would Clint Dempsey have helped our team against Chicago? In any role, would he have scored? I see ball after ball played to him in the air, and I see Bakary Soumare leaping up and heading the ball away.

    • I agree with you that 8, 1 million dollar players would help much more than 1, 8 million dollar player. I would definitley settle for just 1 million dollar player and a 500,000 dollar coach.
      I am not sure they overpaid for dempsey anymore than we overpay for klebberson and Hack (gotta make more than 100,000).

      • Jim Presti says:

        @Matt we did not overpay for Kleberson. Misconception. We sold Adu to remove his pay from the 2014 budget. As part of the deal, we took on Kleberson [and his subsequent salary] for the 2013 season. He was actually roughly the same amount as Adu. It was away to clear our books for 2014.
        Between Adu and Soumare we cleared around $500-$600k of salary space. Coupled with the sale of Garfan [roughly 60k off the books plus about $90k in transfer] we’ve added more wiggle to our budget for the remainder of this season and 2014.
        Even if you suppose that 1. Valdes is not returning 2. Kleberson is not returning 3. that Fabinho, Nikolov, and Gilberto make $100k each [very high estimates], this would leave between $200-$300k in extra space. This will most likely used in re-negotiating salaries for some of our younger players [think Mac and Okugo] but also to acquire some foreign talent.
        Also to note that if Valdes does transfer out, we will receive somewhere around 1.1-1.2 mil. Food for thought

      • Jim. I agree. I was not clear. What I meant is that some things are a means to an end. What we pay for kleberson is penance for the adu deal. And the psychological price we pay for hack is penance for not paying/ looking for a real coach. The price paid for Dempsey is to have the hottest thing in the mls and a great player. Hard to say its not worth the money.
        Your argument though is true and a solid reason for hope if the team actually uses that money to go after talent and not maintain status quo.

      • Jim Presti says:

        +1. I won’t say whether or not CD is worth $8 mil for the next 3-4 years. But I will say that I’m hopeful that the Union, under Hackworth, will continue to make successful financial moves with an obvious interest in picking up a solid DP. I’ll have a better guess at the end of the season. I’m 99% sure the players union posts the individual salaries for the year then.
        Sidenote: coaches are not paid out of the cap. They are paid under the general management budget. Further, I think there are some very solid players out there in the $200k-$300k range [the best example of budget management is RSL]. There really isn’t a reason to drop $8 mil aside from merch./seat sales for big names.

    • Dempsey would be in a lot of teammates faces. He would not put up with that crap. He would also try to get Hackworth out of the way. Dempsey fought through all of the top defenses in the BPL. If Farfan and Carroll were dogging it and Cruz was pin balling around aimlessly they’d get their collective asses handed to them.

  6. Given the past and present of this club, it’s truly ridiculous to even speak of paying eight people 1 million, and more ludicrous to speak of the team paying a true star 8 million. After Adu, the union will never pay anyone big bucks again, and yet I’ll still fork over money for my season tickets so why should management change anything?

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