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Clint Dempsey could become second-tier U.S. player with move back to MLS

Aug 6, 2013, 3:30 PM EDT

Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Jozy Altidore AP

SEATTLE — United States national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann was not shy in his assessment back in January that captain Clint Dempsey “hasn’t made s—.” And that was before the Texan spurned a chance at the UEFA Champions League to return to Major League Soccer.

Klinsmann’s main message at the start of the calendar year was that another level always exists for Dempsey to reach toward. In his introductory press conference Monday, Dempsey said the coach is entitled to his opinion, but the two had not spoken in the process of him signing for Seattle Sounders FC:

I haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down and talk to him about everything that’s gone on. I’ve been busy with my family and really thinking about the decision and trying to make the best decision possible for us.

It’s something that we will talk about, but like I spoke with Sigi [Schmid, Sounders FC head coach], I’m coming here, (and) I’m still going to have that pressure to succeed, pushing me every day to make sure that I can be the best player that I can be and help the team be the best that they can be.

I’m not going to let up or slow down or slack — I’m going to keep pushing myself, keep working hard and make the most of where I’m at. I’m happy to be here in Seattle.

We’ll have those discussions, but from my standpoint, I don’t see there being a difference there because there are players still in MLS that get called into camp, and they still perform at a high level. I expect to continue doing the same.

MLS-based players Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Omar González, Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson all played major roles in the U.S.’s June matches of World Cup qualifying. However, their levels of sharpness and contribution were markedly different from those of the European-based players, such as Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore.

The center back tandem of Besler and González has had its costly lapses. Evans was, at best, a temporary stopgap at right back this summer. Zusi’s play has dropped since the adrenaline of getting his first real chance with the national team has worn off. After scoring in front of his home crowd in Seattle, Eddie Johnson was nearly invisible in Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, Bradley continues to run the midfield, Howard (and his back-up, Brad Guzan) looks sharp as ever, Fabian Johnson provided multiple key runs and balls down the left flank and Altidore exploded for three goals in three June qualifiers.

Perhaps MLS players can perform at a “high level,” as Dempsey put it on Monday, but it’s definitely a level below the highest.

Then there’s the Landon Donovan conundrum.

The former U.S. star who has not featured in World Cup qualifiers under Klinsmann was the best player in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Granted, it was against primarily “B”-level players (and with “B”-level players), but that performance seemed the most likely to translate to success on the highest international stage.

Perhaps Dempsey can be another exception to the general trend of European superiority. Like Donovan has, Dempsey will probably go on loan to a European club this winter, allowing him to stay up on the competition before next summer’s World Cup.

At least for now, nobody seems prepared to step into Dempsey’s second-striker starting role on the U.S. team. When qualifiers start up again in September, after he has played in a small handful of games for the Sounders, observers should get a better idea of how playing in MLS will affect his general level of play.

But while Zusi, Besler and González have not yet reached the peak of their careers, Dempsey and Donovan both have. It’s not a question of getting better for them — it’s a question of maintaining good form against many players who simply are not on their level.

“I just feel that it was the right time,” Dempsey said on Monday. “I wanted to come back when I was in my prime. I had a good time in Europe. … I look back with no regrets. I thought in my time over there, if you want to crunch numbers, I was successful, and I want to continue doing the same here.”

For his part, Klinsmann has not yet spoken to the media about Dempsey’s decision. Based on his past comments, it’s difficult to see him saying too many positive things about Dempsey playing for the Sounders.

“There is always another level,” Klinsmann said in January. “If you one day reach the highest level, then you’ve got to confirm it every year.”

  1. charliej11 - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:03 PM

    Very bizzarre how American soccer bloggers look at soccer.
    If a coach values you from a top team, then you must be great.

    Winning championships ? Nah, doesn’t matter.
    But we are trying to WIN the World Cup ? no still doesn’t matter just as long a foreign club coach values you.

    Hopefully JK isn’t that dumb or the US will get crushed after denying back to back MLS champ ( LD ) and future MLS champ ( CD ).

    JK should be thinking, I have a winner here, someone that wants to play for something, rather than just wasting away his career like most of England.
    ….I guess he should have gone to Stoke where he could have been demolished by Dallas in the preseason.

  2. geojock - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:30 PM

    I dont know where to start. You are comparing Dempsey to Zusi and even worse Brad Evans??

  3. hildezero - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:42 PM

    This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a journalist say that Deuce will become a “2nd tier” player in US Soccer for playing in the MLS. The sad part, is that this is an American sports website and actually bashing the MLS and it’s players.

  4. joeyt360 - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    Yeah, I can’t stand this kind of stuff. Obviously, playing in a European league with a higher caliber of competition has the *potential* to improve a player, if given some real time to do so. But Dempsey’s already realized whatever effect he was going to get out of it.

    That’s *potential*. . . over the *long term*. By giving you an exposure you’d never had before. Guys don’t pick up brand new skills in a week or two because they happen to be playing in a posher postal code, and they don’t lose in a year what they learned over the course of seven. (And by the way Dempsey can still take a loan if he so chooses.)

    Europe ain’t magic pixie dust kids. If it was, we’d have produced a better center back at some point than Eddie Pope (since we’ve repeated the Donovan example so often we’re almost tired of hearing it). How many guys have gone abroad trying to improve? Hard to put an exact number to it, but it’s a whole lot easier to come up with a list of guys that have actually gotten any better than Pope did that way, because it’s approximately zero.

    In fact, most of the risk was on the other side. If Dempsey had stayed at Tottenham, he’s got more competition than last year and a manager who’s signed players who better fit his style. (And it gets worse, not better, if they sell Bale, precisely because you can’t 1:1 replace him and they would have instead tried to bring in two or three more guys). And there’s more risk in not playing in Europe than there is in playing in MLS.

    I like how we compare Besler and Gonzalez to hypotheticals and not to, say Tim Ream, who went abroad higher on the NT depth chart than they were but fell behind them while there. (The same thing happened to Maurice Edu.)

    And does one think that just maybe guys like Bradley and Altidore are in Europe because they are good more than the other way around? The magic power of Europe to improve a player was noticeably absent when Altidore was at Hull (and unlike Ream or Edu, he was actually pretty regularly playing there).

    • wandmdave - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:08 PM

      You are misunderstanding what Liviu is saying. He’s not worried about Dempsey’s skills or abilities. He has those and that wont change. He’s worried about how consistent and mentally sharp he will be when he doesn’t *have* to be switched on 100% day in and day out. His example was pointing out that while the MLS guys (with the exception of Donovan) contribute decent skills and abilities on the national team they are more prone to off games or mental lapses during games than the Euro based players tend to be. I happen to agree, you may not but that isn’t the point you argued.

      • joeyt360 - Aug 9, 2013 at 5:14 PM

        I’m trying to figure out how my response doesn’t still apply.

    • schmutzdeck - Aug 11, 2013 at 3:55 PM


      Mo Edu improved by going abroad. He could have gotten a lot better had he used his success at Rangers to facilitate a move to a more competitive situation.

      Unfortunately he waited too long and by the time Stoke came for him it was a rush move caused by the collapse of Rangers, the same thing that ultimately undermined Boca’s form. Still he had been doing well during his loan at Bursaspor and had he not been hurt it seems likely he would have gotten a move somewhere from Stoke.

      • joeyt360 - Aug 13, 2013 at 6:13 PM

        Yeah, he kinda did, for a while. But here’s the point, I think: when he ran into a PT dead-end, that cost him more than any improvement he made while he was playing. He’s certainly no better off in terms of his NT career (though his wallet’s fatter and I don’t have a problem with that) than if he’d just stayed in MLS.

  5. Dan Haug - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:09 PM

    This is not a very well-thought-out post. It parrots a lot of conventional wisdom (myth) about how players can only play their best if they are playing against the very best. It bizarrly assumes that playing in MLS makes you a worse player, rather than that worse players have (in the past) been unable to make it outside MLS.

    The only real worry here is that Dempsey sees this as a retirement of sorts, and stops putting out the effort. If that doesn’t happen (and I don’t think it will), then he will be fine. Klinnsman may want to punish him in some way (as he has Donovan and Altidore), but I really don’t think it will have a long-lasting umpact unless Dempsey responds badly.

    Nothin’ to see here… move along.

  6. woodleyparkth14 - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    Gotta disagree with pretty much all of the below-the-line commentary here, although I do agree that the ultimate worst-case scenario is that Dempsey would take his foot off the gas (I don’t think he will). It’s not NBCSN’s responsibility, or any other media outlet short of the club’s own PR machine, to hype the quality – or lack thereof – of any one league. Have a look at the English media’s coverage of the decline in the English national side’s quality because of the influx of foreign talent into the Prem.

    Regardless, and this is not to slag off the MLS, which has come a long way – but pointing, anectdotally to Stoke losing on their pre-season WARMUP tour to an MLS side in mid-season form and fitness is just that. One could equally point to the MLS all-stars being taken apart like a Sunday league team by a Roma side that looked like it wasn’t even in 3rd gear yet. But the talent level, pace, and competition in the MLS is still miles away from any of the major competitive leagues of Europe and Klinsmann has every right to be disappointed and/or judgmental of the caliber of players in the USMNT pool who have both the ability and capbility to excell in any one of those leagues – Dempsey included. No one can take away the allure of coming home – from a family standpoint – sure it must be easier than living abroad – but rather than try to divine an answer on that front – the fact remains that as field players go, Dempsey and Bradley are the obvious exports with the ability to play and excel in these leagues – against the highest caliber opposition.

    The question isn’t whether Dempsey should have settled for a bench role at THFC, the answer in a World Cup year is plainly “no.” But there were more competitive alternatives ahead of a MLS side – whether in the Premiership or the continent that would have provided exposure to the competition that we should striving for. The USMNT is still in need of standout players to carry the standard against the world’s best – not to beat the Stokes, Norwiches, and West Hams of the world. And Clint isn’t going to come up against sides that can pass and run with speed and technical ability week in and week out – which, come next summer, he’s going to have to face in teams we’re expecting our guys to be competitive with.

    Dempsey is a fanstatic player – he probably never should have left Fulham as the side played very directly to his strengths, but I can’t blame him for taking on a new challenge at THFC. He could have gone to Germany, though, Italy, or Spain to have the opportunity to face the quality of a Bayern, Juve, or Barca – b/c, let’s face it, the national sides we want to beat are going to be full of the those players. Not the gd Potters.

    Still, all the best to Dempsey. I’m sure the Sounders are overjoyed.

    • joeyt360 - Aug 6, 2013 at 6:53 PM

      “The question isn’t whether Dempsey should have settled for a bench role at THFC, the answer in a World Cup year is plainly “no.” But there were more competitive alternatives ahead of a MLS side – whether in the Premiership or the continent that would have provided exposure to the competition that we should striving for.”

      That’s an assumption. One I don’t think bears out, given Tottenham wasn’t willing to let him go without recouping basically all the fee they’d paid. Most of the clubs for whom he’s a guaranteed starter aren’t going to pay that fee.

  7. jayh888 - Aug 6, 2013 at 7:26 PM

    This post permanently proved to me that you have no worthwhile knowledge or understanding of this sport.

  8. danielofthedale - Aug 6, 2013 at 7:29 PM

    I find it so rich for people to think that 12 months in MLS will turn Clint Dempesy from an above average EPL player into some hack that will be a shell of his form self. He is 30 and reached his developmental peak. He was not getting any better whether he was a bench play at Spurs or a starter at Everton. He is also a pro who has a history of putting in the hard work to achieve the best he can on the field. To think that coming to MLS is going to make the Captain of his national team slack off in a World Cup year is both far fetched and a real slight at the player Clint is.

  9. dfstell - Aug 6, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    I can see the point of this post. I’ll preface this by saying the I think Dempsey will be FINE for the WC next summer (knock on wood). That being said, acting like he isn’t going to miss out on things by playing in MLS is insane. Even if we want to make fun of West Ham or Stoke or Norwich or Villa and claim they aren’t really any better than the best in MLS (which I think is untrue, btw), when you play for Villa, you are playing against better players every weekend than you play against in MLS.

    It’s just better WC preparation if Dempsey is coming off a run of games against EPL defenses than MLS defenses. When we play in the WC, he has to face guys like Kompany and Ferdinand and Fellaini. You don’t really want him to show up and say, “Oh crap….I’d forgotten how fast and tricky these guys were.” The only international CBs he’ll see in MLS are his teammates.

  10. mfmaxpower - Aug 6, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    No way Dempsey becomes “second tier” – he’s just too high a quality of player relative to the rest of the US player pool.

    That said, it’s totally possible that he won’t be as effective, as sharp, or as clutch as he has been for us. Playing against lesser competition in the MLS can’t have a positive effect on his game when it comes to the big international matches.

    A big question going forward might be whether he’s still an automatic starter. He’s never been a natural #10, and with Donovan coming back and player so well, is Dempsey the first choice #10? If he’s not, then is he the best choice starting in one of the wide positions?

    The Seattle move might prove to be a good move for Dempsey personally but I can’t see how this is anything but a negative for the USMNT and its fans.

  11. lyleoross - Aug 7, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    When a youth player moves into the competitive world of soccer, how many parents say, “you know, I’m gonna leave him at the Y, that’s good enough”? Parents move their kids into competitive venues led by the best trainers and coaches. There’s a reason for that. Long term evidence shows that better environments make better players. Being challenged by better players makes you better, no matter what level you start at.

    To be clear, Donovan looked great in the Gold Cup, playing against second tier teams that made the mistake of opening up defensively and allowing a guy with speed access to the penalty area. As soon as Panama packed it in with a highly defensive scheme, Donovan’s vaunted Gold Cup went to zero (BTW – Costa Rica did the same). Donovan, a great player, never reached the top of his game because he never honed his skills against the best.

    Dempsey is making a mistake, and JK is more than smart enough to realize that. When you have your top young guys moving in droves to Europe to gain more experience, why do you stick with the guy who is stepping back from that? As always, JK will look at Clint, decide what value he brings, and use him when necessary. When he sees something better, he will go there. My guess is that will happen quickly, and well before the WC. Transition in sport happens quickly, and skills atrophy or get honed very fast. Clint won’t lift Seattle to the top, any more than Beckham lifted LA to the top all by himself. It is a team sport. Seattle will have more of an impact on Dempsey, than Dempsey will have on Seattle.

    • joeyt360 - Aug 9, 2013 at 5:20 PM

      “When a youth player moves into the competitive world of soccer, how many parents say, “you know, I’m gonna leave him at the Y, that’s good enough”? Parents move their kids into competitive venues led by the best trainers and coaches. ”

      My first response is “not as many as should.” “Most money” or even “best players” does not equal “best development environment,” and this is a mistake many American parents do indeed make. Most of improvement is self-driven (as Dempsey says in his rap video, he din’t get that from no coaches).

      But my second response is that this implicitly concedes my point above. Newsflash: CLINT DEMPSEY IS 30! He is the player he’s gonna be, right now.

    • schmutzdeck - Aug 11, 2013 at 4:10 PM

      In the long term Clint’s level will drop, but no one here cares about Clint long term. He’ll be phased out after Brazil if not sooner. Then he can go fishing all he wants.
      JK was willing to dump Donovan; he won’t think twice about dropping Clint. And these two are right now the US’ two most dangerous players.

      The point here is how much will the move hurt Dempsey’s USMNT form for Brazil?
      If Geoff Cameron came back tomorrow to play for Houston, I would say it would negatively affect his form for Brazil. He is a comparative newbie at that level and still has much to learn.
      Clint’s not like that. Despite his age, Dempsey can get better than what we have already seen but what we have already seen for the US is very good.

      Yet Spurs and it seems most suitable (for US fans) teams in Europe didn’t think Clint was worth his salary anymore. So they were unwilling to finance his self- improvement program.
      I don’t know that Clint even had the option to stay with Spurs but if he did would scratching out a game here and there, hoping for a wave of injuries be better for retaining his sharpness than regular play at Seattle and then a loan to who knows who at the end of the season?
      Some would say a struggle at Spurs would sharpen Deuce and make him hungry to make a point all season and going into the WC. I say wanting to prove this MLS move to be a good one might motivate him in Brazil (assuming he is on the team) just as much.

      All I know is it is very obvious Clint’s priorities have changed and there is nothing anyone, least of all Clint Dempsey, can do about it. Ironically, this is exactly the same dilemma Donovan faced and he solved it the same way. In the end both guys prioritized the World Cup.

      You can’t force these guys to be the superstars you want them to be.

  12. midtec2005 - Aug 13, 2013 at 1:05 AM

    Respected players like Robbie Keane and Obefemi Martins say MLS is MORE difficult because the competition is much more even. Now Clint will have to perform his best every week… no days off, very much unlike when Tottenham plays Sunderland. Furthermore, if MLS players can’t perform well at the international level, how do you explain Landon Donovan? Oh, and the 2002 world cup team (and MLS was a lot worse then!)

    Seriously, did you get paid to write this?

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