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Is it really so hard to understand Clint Dempsey’s move to Major League Soccer?

Aug 3, 2013, 2:30 PM EDT

United States v Jamaica - World Cup Qualifier Getty Images

It’s fair if you want to question Clint Dempsey’s move from the premium shelf of world soccer back into well-drink world of MLS.

It’s OK to wonder if the native Texan risks a slight decline in quality without the drive required to reach Premier League standard, not to mention the competition for spots on a Spurs roster that’s full of talent, regardless of whether Gareth Bale keeps his locker at White Hart Lane.

But some of the reaction for American fans is sliding toward “incredulous,” and that is misplaced overreaction.

Is it really so hard to understand why Dempsey would make this move? Actually, the better question is this: Is it really so hard to understand why Dempsey would grab this golden opportunity?

“Golden,” I say. Because however much you heart Dempsey, however much you value what the man has done for U.S. Soccer, you have to know this: another golden goose of a contract was not coming along for the 30-year-old striker.

The inexorable sands of time expire all too quickly in professional sports, as we know. Who can blame any man or woman for grasping that understanding with a disciplined ferocity?

His $8 million salary represents a healthy raise – and then some. Again, there is simply no way Dempsey would have such a whopper of contract dangled before him again.

(MORE: Dempsey to Seattle: $9 million fee, $8 million salary)

Some early reports had Dempsey in the $7 million a year range with Spurs, which always sounded high. (Dempsey even said on Twitter at the time that the figures were inaccurate.) Even if that amount was correct, considering the cost of living in London and higher tax structure abroad, it’s safe to say the Texas man has measurably improved his financial lot today.

It’s also fair to point out that Dempsey left Fulham to chase Champions League glory. But the reality stands: he is not in Champions League this year. And there is absolutely no guarantee that Spurs will be any closer to the world’s best club competition come next May.

The other consideration that probably isn’t getting enough recognition is playing time. Simply put, nothing is more important for a player going into a World Cup year. Dempsey did appear 43 times for Spurs, but he started in just 22 of Tottenham’s Premier League matches (i.e., the club’s most important ones).

Reports had circulated late in the spring that Andre Villas-Boas was willing to unload the versatile Dempsey, in part because he was too, well, versatile. The manager prefers specialists for White Hart Lane duty. It was logical to assume that playing time for Dempsey wasn’t going to improve significantly, although it might have remained static.

(MORE: Spurs confirm Dempsey’s sale to Major League Soccer)

Bottom line here, he is moving from a place where minutes where hardly guaranteed, into an address where he is a lead-pipe lock for starts and playing time. With 34 MLS matches, plus playoffs, U.S. Open Cup, potential CONCACAF Champions League contests and the lucrative, high-profile exhibitions Seattle can command, Dempsey is likely to feature in 40-plus matches a year.

(And by the way, have you been to a match at CenturyLink? That place rocks. Eat your heart out Euro soccer snobs … contests at Seattle’s downtown ground easily match the electricity at most grounds of the Old World.)

Yes, the standard is lower in MLS. But what does “standard” matter in the event that Dempsey’s minutes began declining around White Hart Lane. Who knows what he was being told by Villas-Boas with regard to how the minutes would be parsed with Spurs?

Again, we can have conversations about whether this move will squeeze the best from Jurgen Klinsmann’s top choice striker / attacking midfielder. That’s fair.

But any failure to at least consider why the man would make such a move is probably rooted in one thing: European soccer snobbery, this notion that American professional soccer isn’t worth the grass that it’s being played on – or the artificial surface, I suppose.

Major League Soccer is not the Premier League, clearly. But up to four other U.S. starters next year in Brazil could be MLS men, so it’s not like this is something rare.

Athletes cannot be blamed for doing what is best for themselves and their families. If a few U.S. fans are disappointed because they won’t get to see their hero in a Premier League shirt, that’s on them, not on Dempsey.

  1. jjkusowski - Aug 3, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    And you can practice and fish in the same day here.

  2. talgrath - Aug 3, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    As far as the taxes go, it’s worth noting that it’s a very significant drop; Washington state does not tax income so all Dempsey has to deal with are Federal taxes. Americans living abroad still have to pay Federal taxes in addition to any taxes in the country they work in.

  3. perrinbar - Aug 3, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    There is also no state income tax in Washington. Which should further increase his take home pay.

  4. mkbryant3 - Aug 3, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    Thank you Steve. Right on. The family angle can not be stressed enough. If the man’s family is happy, then he is happy. Plus he has his boy EJ on the team. And a happy athlete is a productive athlete.

    The tax rate and fishin’ can’t hurt either.

    At the rate the league is going, who knows what it’ll look like in year 3 of his contract. Rising still, I’m guessing.

    And Seattle will open the upper deck for the anticipated extra fans who will now want to attend. The other owners also have to be relishing what Clint will do to their attendances as well.

    The sponsors have to be licking their chops as well. Nike, NBC, and others.

    So many great story lines on this one. Got to be good for the site, eh Steve?

  5. drosejr - Aug 3, 2013 at 3:09 PM

    One nice little side benefit; all those games at the CLink should make Dempsey (and EJ) ready for the artificial turf at Estadio Saprissa this fall!

  6. soccerjohn - Aug 3, 2013 at 4:08 PM

    It’d be one thing if Dempsey left Spurs under the circumstances that existed when he joined the team last year. Or if he clearly figured in the teams plans this year. But the team has added players at all three of the positions Dempsey plays there, and two of them are bonafide world-class stars. Dempsey was a bench player (and probably unwanted) if he stayed and wasn’t going to be competing realistically for CL soccer this season if he left for another European team. This sounds like as big a win for Dempsey as he was likely to achieve this season, a solid win for Seattle, and a huge win for MLS.

    • tariencole - Aug 3, 2013 at 4:44 PM

      Let’s say Dempsey was surplus to requirements given the wages he was being paid at White Hart. Versatile players are useful for depth. But not when they’re paid equivalent to starters. Clint was too expensive for squad rotation, and was never going to unseat the players ahead of him. That made him loan bait to recover salary, or transfer fodder. Better, given where he would’ve gone on loan (relegation battler or outright to the Championship), that he sign now.

  7. mfmaxpower - Aug 3, 2013 at 4:51 PM

    Please. What a load of crud this article is. Obviously Deuce is doing it for the money, and obviously he has every right to do what he thinks is best for his family.

    But this article doesn’t mention the fact that Deuce talked a big game before his Spurs move. Regularly speaking about wanting to push himself, to play against the best, to experience Champions League football. Deuce made an name for himself for his attitude as much as his skill.

    And then after one so-so year at Spurs he does a total about-face and flies home for the easy paycheck. Sure, you’re right: athletes can’t be blamed for doing what’s best for their family (though I think they probably were already on track to doing just fine) but fans have every right to feel disappointed and betrayed when a player’s decisions fail to match-up with the person we thought we knew.

    Like it or not, Demps will now forever be known as having stepped-down from top-tier football before his time. It’s going to be an asterisk next to his career, just like Donovan has next to his after his failed attempts in Germany.

    • joeyt360 - Aug 4, 2013 at 6:40 PM

      “But this article doesn’t mention the fact that Deuce talked a big game before his Spurs move. Regularly speaking about wanting to push himself, to play against the best, to experience Champions League football.”

      Well, that option wasn’t on the table anymore. And the moral of this story is–as if it couldn’t have been gleaned from any of half a dozen previous league DP signings–is that once you figure out where you’re going to top out in this game, there is no significant prestige difference between the step-down involved in either becoming a bench player for your big club or going to a smaller one in the Premier League, and becoming the franchise player for a team in MLS that can actually win something.

      If the guy was valued enough by MLS to pay the money, they could probably sign just about any player that age in any of the bottom 14 teams in the Premier League right now. They could have, say, Tim Howard tomorrow too, if they thought he was worth the money. (I’d guess they could sign just about any NT player except Altidore and Bradley, because those two don’t quite know what their ceiling is yet.)

      “Like it or not, Demps will now forever be known as having stepped-down from top-tier football before his time. It’s going to be an asterisk next to his career, just like Donovan has next to his after his failed attempts in Germany.”

      I suspect that deep in your heart you know this is ridiculous. When Dempsey (and Donovan as well for that matter) is long retired, they’ll be remembered for being the best players the US has produced up to this point. He’ll be compared and contrasted with whatever we produce in the future. Sure, if that hypothetical guy does make an impact in the UCL, that will score points in his favor. But Dempsey isn’t going to be rated any differently than any guy who didn’t make it at that level, regardless of a few sanctimonious curmudgeons said while it was still going on. I’ll go further: Dempsey’s legacy will be rated HIGHER if he wins titles in Seattle than he would have been if he’d stayed at Tottenham and rarely played and they didn’t win anything.

      • mfmaxpower - Aug 4, 2013 at 8:29 PM

        “Well, that option wasn’t on the table anymore.” Why not? He was under contract at Spurs. He still could’ve played regularly. And Spurs could conceivably be in the Champions League next year.

        Only a year ago he was talking about challenging himself against the best the game has to offer. The Clint I thought I knew would’ve stayed and fought for his place rather than bailing on that challenge after a single (injury-filled) season.

        “I suspect that deep in your heart you know this is ridiculous. When Dempsey (and Donovan as well for that matter) is long retired, they’ll be remembered for being the best players the US has produced up to this point”

        It’s not ridiculous at all. You’re right: when they retire they will be known for being among the best, if not the best, the US has produced. But they will also be remembered for not having quite made it to the highest (or at least higher) levels despite having the opportunity to do so.

        And Dempsey’s legacy might be enhanced among those who pay attention to the MLS if he wins in Seattle, but for the majority of soccer fans in the world – including plenty of Americans like myself who hardly keep track of what’s going on in MLS – what Dempsey does in Seattle will be an afterthought.

    • gra42 - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:46 AM

      “Demps will now forever be known as having stepped-down from top-tier football before his time. It’s going to be an asterisk next to his career, just like Donovan has next to his after his failed attempts in Germany.”

      Donovan didn’t “fail” in Germany. He was the junior guy to a lot of bonafide international local boys and even World Cup stars like Riberry. Like Klinsman said, “who was he going to replace”? When he got a chance in the tougher at the time EPL, he was Everton’s clutch scorer against the likes of Man U and Arsenal during his run that surpassed Brian McBride, a run which he wanted to extend but wasn’t allowed to by the MLS contract right-holders. He didn’t choose to come back to the MLS.

  8. the0verheadwire - Aug 3, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    Great post Steve.

    There are a lot of issues that a lot of people (mostly Eurosnobs at ESPNFC and others) are missing. First is that family is really important to Clint. The death of his sister early on was what allowed him to play soccer professionally. They didn’t have a lot of money when he was a kid and his family focused on his sister’s tennis career until she died unexpectedly.

    Second, people are forgetting the role that Klinnsman played in all of this as well. I personally got the feeling that Clint was just following along with Klinsi moving away from Craven Cottage. He said he wanted to play Champions League, which is probably true, but he had one more season at Fulham then could have been anywhere on a free transfer. After another huge goal season, what top Champions League team wouldn’t have wanted to take him? You know Arsenal hasn’t spent any money yet and other top half teams need players.

    But instead he was kind of shoehorned into Spurs with a fanbase that didn’t appreciate his work ethic and skills (I call it the British ‘Yank’ complex) and a manager who didn’t quite know how to use him in his system. If transfers are a guide, Clint wouldn’t have gotten a lot of playing time this year even though with the third best goal total in all competitions he should have been lauded in a first year with a team.

    Finally, he can still go back on Loan to stay sharp over the winter. It’s not like teams wouldn’t be into a small stint if they really wanted him. He also can take a break over the winter and then play all the way through the World Cup. We need him fresh and ready to go, not beat up after the end of a long European season. People aren’t really looking at that angle as well.

    So anyways, good on Clint for making a decision that I think will be a benefit to him and the USMNT. I bet he’s excited that he might actually be able to go home for Christmas this year.

    • mfmaxpower - Aug 3, 2013 at 5:56 PM

      I don’t get the complex that some of you guys have against others who acknowledge the fact that MLS is FAR behind the top European leagues in the quality of their product, and who choose to spend their time on top-class football over leagues of lesser quality.

      Eurosnobs. Pfft. Grow up. The MLS is a solidly-growing league with lots of potential but the quality of its product is miles behind the top leagues. That doesn’t mean that there’s no value to following MLS but if you want to see the best of the sport, you have to look elsewhere.

      Oh, and it’s not like Clint moved back to Texas. He’s still something like 2,000 miles away from home. You can’t begrudge a guy for wanting more access to his family – if that’s really a part of the equation here – but he only had a couple more years at his prime anyways. If this were two or three years from now, no one would be making an issue.

      If he truly had been dead-set on playing Champions League football and challenging himself against top competition of the sport – which according to him had been his motivation to leave Fulham – then I’m sure you could have tolerated being away from his family for a few more seasons.

      Biggest of all maybe, how on earth some of you guys think having one of our top players going against lesser competition will be a good thing for the USMNT is beyond me.

      • joeyt360 - Aug 4, 2013 at 6:49 PM

        The problem isn’t that you ‘MLS is FAR behind the top European leagues in the quality of their product’–after all, read his post again and find where he said anything different. The problem is that you feel EMOTIONALLY BETRAYED by it, and you think, laughably, that this is in all situations the only relevant criteria. That’s the part that verily reeks of Eurosnobbery, and it’s also the reason why you’re offended by the use of the word.

      • gra42 - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:52 AM

        Actually, the problem that Clint might concerning himself with is getting to the World Cup much fresher than he did the last time around in ’06. Maybe the Euro stars are top notch players, but the Tourney is unforgiving after a drawn out C.L/ domestic season when a 30 y/o player needs downtime. Next summer in Brazil, I predict he’ll be running circles around Euro based mids, just like he did in ’06 and Landon did in ’02.

  9. tylerbetts - Aug 3, 2013 at 6:55 PM

    Without knowing what all was going on behind the scenes and what other clubs might have been interested in Dempsey, it’s hard to say for sure if this decisions is easy to understand. It’s also hard to say for sure if it’s all about the money.

    I’d say if the only teams interested in Dempsey were lower-level PL teams, this move is about more than just money. This is a better option. Going to a club that can’t compete for Europe, can’t compete for a trophy, and won’t push him to anything different than Fullham did? That’s not a better option than playing in front of 40k in Seattle, and potentially being a dynamic-changing move.

    Now, if there were teams outside of England that compete for Champions League or were in Champions League and he opted for this … then, yes, he did it for the money and I don’t fully understand it.

    That said, I think the former is true. Clubs in the middle of England were interested, and that wasn’t actually a better move than Seattle.

  10. gra42 - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:36 AM

    He did pretty well internationally coming out of the MLS, some of his best performances for the Nats happened against Italy (at a man down and the focus for their midfield disruption, he absolutely embarrassed them as much as any other player in that tourney) and Ghana in ’06. The MLS is a stronger league now than it was then. Being co-ordinated and quick enough to win and hold a ball, then find the back of the net are gifts a player has or doesn’t have. It’s not like he went overseas and came back more tactically aggressive. I’d think about the most important thing a PL experience would have given him would be a taste of what the game is like with other talented players, as opposed to being most of a team’s arsenal. Now that the Nats are more competent technically than ever and Seattle has E.J., he’s still in the same boat relatively he was in at Tottenham.

    • gra42 - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:54 AM

      But now he won’t be ragged-out after the long Euro season just before Brazil.

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