Dempsey takes calculated MLS risk

BY Kyle McCarthy • August 2, 2013

Major League Soccer has spent much of the past week highlighting its recent growth and touting its promise for the future. It now can point to one of the most significant signings in league history to back up its bullish perspective.

The Seattle Sounders reportedly agreed to purchase United States captain Clint Dempsey from Barclays Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, sources told FOX Soccer on Friday night. Tottenham confirmed Dempsey's return to Major League Soccer on Saturday.

''We have reached agreement with Major League Soccer for the transfer of Clint Dempsey,'' said Tottenham in an official statement. "The United States international returns to MLS after making 43 appearances and scoring 12 goals in our colors following his signing from Fulham last summer. We wish Clint every success for the future."

Dempsey, 30, is expected to officially seal the move over the next couple of days and wrap up a whirlwind courtship involving people snapping photos in airports to chronicle his movements, several denials along the way and a surge of interest when it became apparent the improbable deal would come to fruition.

The audacious swoop constitutes nothing short of a dramatic statement of intent from Seattle and a sign of inherent faith from Dempsey in the league he left after the 2006 season.

At that juncture of his career, Dempsey felt he needed to leave New England to further his prospects in the Premier League. He pushed to complete a deal with Charlton Athletic before ultimately securing his fateful $4 million switch to Fulham after receiving his work permit in January 2007. His evident progress as a player and his subsequent success at the club and the international level validated his belief that he required a change to extract his full potential.

The former Fulham, Spurs standout last played in Major League Soccer in 2006. (Photo: Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images).

Dempsey's decision to return at this stage and swap Tottenham for Seattle now may come in part due to Spurs' willingness to sell him during the summer and the Sounders' desire to meet that asking price, but it also shows the American international forward believes he can prepare adequately for next summer's World Cup by plying his trade in MLS.

It is not a choice Dempsey could have made several years ago, but the standards in MLS have increased to the point where it is not a completely outlandish verdict on his part. United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann relies on several domestic-based players – including a trio of emerging stars in Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi and veterans Landon Donovan (yup, he's back in the mix now after that CONCACAF Gold Cup display in July) and Eddie Johnson – to complement his charges stationed elsewhere. Their continued and rising influence within the pool suggests MLS – even though it is not particularly close to the Premier League or other top European leagues in terms of quality of play on the whole – offers enough of a week-to-week challenge to maintain the necessary sharpness for the tribulations of World Cup qualifying.

Even with those points in mind, this move would not have occurred without Seattle stepping up to the table and wielding its ample financial clout to close the deal. Only a handful of MLS clubs – New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle and Toronto FC – possess the necessary resources to cobble together the bid required to entice Spurs and satisfy Dempsey. And only Seattle – bolstered by its passionate supporters and an atmosphere comparable to top-notch European teams – dared to try.

Seattle has received some deserved criticism in the past for not aiming high enough with its Designated Player targets given its financial backing, but the expensive acquisition of Obafemi Martins from Spanish side Levante earlier this year marked a shift in philosophy. Dempsey's arrival during the summer window reinforces the transition to targets befitting the club's stature and underscores the ambition within the ranks for a club already backed by the largest crowds in the country.

Dempsey ticks every possible box for Sounders coach Sigi Schmid as he attempts to mount a sustained charge for the club's first MLS Cup triumph in December. He offers the joker in the pack in the middle of the park, a player capable of pulling something from nothing when others fail to produce on a given night. His presence should open more operating room for Johnson and Martins and spark the occasionally sputtering Sounders attack to new heights.

Similar sentiments apply to the league as a whole in the wake of this stunning transfer. Dempsey cast his lot with MLS at a precarious time in his career. He chose to play in Seattle instead of pursuing a Deadline Day move to another Premier League or top-flight European club with the World Cup beckoning next year. He placed his faith in MLS to help him achieve the goals set forth for the next few years of his career.

It marks a potential turning point for a league still striving for widespread acceptance on its own shores. Dempsey cannot replicate the global impact of David Beckham or the massive influence of Landon Donovan over the long haul, but he does provide a compelling and tangible symbol of MLS' continued progress over the past few years. And his imminent return to the league he once left offers plenty of encouragement that the growth will continue for some time to come.