"MLS was born the bastard child of self-loathing and self-doubt. We are apologetic to a fault when it comes to our league. The self-loathing is legendary and in many ways a hindrance. But it's borne of a culture that always told us we could never measure up to the rest of the world when it came to soccer."
-- Alexi Lalas
Clint Dempsey has scored some beautiful goals. Fulham fans will point to his 30-yard golazo against Stoke City or the exquisite chip that sealed a win over Juventus; supporters of America's national side can look back to June, when Dempsey fired two laser-guided rockets five minutes apart that singed the back of the net against Germany.
Dempsey has scored meaningful goals as well, like the give-and-go against Liverpool that saved the Cottagers from relegation in 2007 or the stoppage-time equalizer in the snow against league leaders Manchester United last winter. He has scored in two World Cups, including the only goal by a U.S. player in the woeful 2006 effort. He has scored against Brazil, Spain, Italy, and England. He has scored in a monsoon in Cuba and a blizzard in Colorado.
But none of those define his hard-fought career. He doesn't have a moment like Landon Donovan's last-gasp winner against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup -- a rebound from a Dempsey shot, fittingly enough. The man who challenges Donovan as America's greatest soccer player has yet to have a career-defining moment.
This is perhaps an unfair quibble for a player who's been so consistently excellent; maybe Dempsey doesn't have a definitive goal because he's scored so many of them (about one for every three games he's played at every level, including 35 in 98 caps for the U.S., second all-time behind Donovan). Or maybe no single goal stands out because so many of his scores look the same: sliding to stab the ball past the keeper or diving to head it into the net.
Dempsey's goals are a microcosm of his style: aggressive, fearless, unafraid of contact. He is forever running around defenders -- no: at defenders -- to get to the goal. He runs into space, changes direction to open a narrow window between defenders, finishes with his right foot, his left foot, a rocket volley, a cheap tap-in off a rebound. He is opportunistic: he takes what he's given, and then some more. His elbows have broken the jaw of U.S. teammate Jimmy Conrad and the cheekbone of Chelsea stalwart John Terry. He doesn't flop -- flopping would be an admission that another player can bring him down, can stop his run.
What he doesn't do is play with his back to the goal. Clint Dempsey only moves forward.
The news shook the American soccer world as Thursday's crude rumors took new shape as Friday's truth: Clint Dempsey is coming to MLS. The overwhelming reaction from American fans -- beyond the initial "Holy shit!" -- was that this is a coup for soccer in the United States. America's best international footballer is coming to play in America's soccer league. The buzz was palpable: the MLS, for years quietly ascendant, had arrived.
But the news brought an undercurrent of disapproval and doubt from a particular kind of American soccer fan -- the fan whose passion for European leagues curdles any discussion about club soccer in the States. The Eurosnob lives in America but cheers for Arsenal or Chelsea or Manchester United, the result of a semester abroad or an extended stay with cousins in London or possibly just a satellite dish with SkySports before American sports networks scrambled for the rights to air European soccer. This is fine: the clubs that play in the Champions League produce arguably the most competitive and entertaining soccer in the world, and anyway there's no entrance exam for fandom beyond an ability to cheer for people in matching shirts.
What is not fine -- or at least tiresome and exasperating -- is any discussion with the Eurosnob about American soccer. The Eurosnob, caught between his passion for the beautiful game and America's struggles to master it, is the driving force behind what Deadspin's Greg Howard calls "the American Soccer Inferiority Complex." Love and shame are forever knotted, and in the Eurosnob's eyes, Dempsey's transfer to Seattle was a failure: for Dempsey, for the USMNT, for all of American soccer.
The quibbles range from professional ("How can Dempsey abandon his dream of playing in the Champions League?") to national ("I wish he would have stayed in Europe to be fit for the World Cup") to herbaceous ("Why would he go to Seattle? He hates playing on turf!"), but in all cases the the argument was framed by the assumption that a career in MLS is detrimental for someone capable of playing in a more competitive European league.
To understand Dempsey's move to MLS, it helps to acknowledge the race against time that talented American players face when they seek pro careers in Europe. The best clubs in Europe have their own academies that start shaping young prodigies before they're teenagers, allowing the standouts to start their pro careers by age 18. That kind of establishment is still nascent in the States, where the NCAA is the more traditional path to a pro career. That pipeline puts 22-year-old players into MLS, where the most talented need to excel for at least a season to get noticed by Europeans clubs. In general, the best Americans start playing at the highest level five or six years later than the best players in the European system.
That framework is less prevalent in 2013 than it was a decade ago, but it certainly applies to Dempsey's career, and it's been exacerbated by a string of managers who struggled to align Dempsey's talent with opportunity. It's true that Dempsey scored the only goal for the U.S. in the 2006 World Cup; it's also true that Bruce Arena left him on the bench for the first game of that tournament, a 3-0 embarrassment against the Czechs. Even at Fulham, where Dempsey is the club's all-time leading scorer, he was slow to break into the starting XI. After saving the club from relegation in '07, he only cracked the starting lineup the following season when Brian McBride went down with an injury; he led the team in Premier League goals that season. Despite that, he started the '08-'09 season on the bench before playing his way back into the starting lineup.
After his sparkling 2011-12 season -- where his 15 Premier League goals earned him 4th place in Footballer of the Year voting, behind Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, luminaries on top-tier clubs -- Dempsey expressed a desire to play in the Champions League and forced a move to Tottenham Hotspur. But instead of cementing his place atop the Premier League, Dempsey struggled for Spurs, a team with world-class scoring options in Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe. In the end, Dempsey would split time with Gylfi Sigurðsson in a role that neither was quite suited for.
Tottenham finished fifth in the Premier League in 2012-13, missing the cut for the Champions League. When the club purchased several young attacking midfielders during the most recent transfer window, the writing on the wall was clear: Dempsey would close out the prime years of his career coming off the bench. Tottenham, not wanting to take a loss on Dempsey, didn't want less than the $9 million they paid to acquire him, even though his stock had depreciated with the club.
So where, exactly, was Dempsey supposed to go? The Eurosnob holds that a lower-table club would better prepare him for the 2014 World Cup, an impossibility given his price. So what better keeps Dempsey in form? Spotty playing time in a system not suited to him, or 90 minutes of carrying a team with Eddie Johnson, a striker who will play alongside Dempsey in Brazil?
The argument that Dempsey's skills will quantifiably depreciate in the year before the World Cup simply because he's playing in MLS is empty and facile. But this is the argument the Eurosnob knows: he has, after all, been saying that about Landon Donovan for more than a decade.
Donovan and Dempsey are the two best American players in history, and whoever's third isn't particularly close. Their careers will be forever intertwined -- not just because they played at the same time or for the same national side, but because of their divergent career paths.
Dempsey came out of college and took the traditional and preferred route for raising the level of American soccer: seek the highest level of competition in Europe. Deuce was hungry and unafraid, eager for new challenges. His confidence often outstripped his experience, and that was part of his charm. There's something about a Texan swaggering through the Premier League, scoring goals and breaking British faces, that Americans are hardwired to find appealing. Clint Dempsey on an English pitch is like watching the final 20 minutes of The Quiet Man.
If the frustration in watching Dempsey's career was the occasional manager or system ill-suited for his style, then the frustration in watching Landon Donovan's career was Landon Donovan. As a teen, Donovan was funneled into U.S. Soccer's full-time residency program, and at the age of 17 he signed a six-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. Before Donovan could vote, he was expected to be America's first international superstar; instead, homesickness and unhappiness led him back to his home state of California, where he's won five MLS Cups -- two with the San Jose Earthquakes and three more with the Galaxy.
Rather than appreciate Donovan's excellence for the USMNT or the way he's helped MLS grow into a respectable league, many American fans can't help but wonder what he could have done if he'd applied his talent against stiffer competition overseas. As Brian Phillips wrote recently for Grantland:
Almost ever since [Donovan was 17], this strange dynamic has existed whereby (a) he has let his career be informed by his own sense of uncertainty rather than valuing achievement over everything else; (b) U.S. soccer fans have looked to him as a savior figure; (c) he has made choices that were right for him in the moment rather than worked single-mindedly toward his legacy; (d) those choices have, to an almost uncanny degree, put him in conflict with the desires of American soccer fans as contained in (b).
A strain of that negativity now pulls at Dempsey's narrative: he is an American star bucking the demands of What Is Right For American Soccer by playing within his nation's borders.
It's a shame that some see it that way. After David Beckham and Thierry Henry, Dempsey is the biggest international star to come to MLS. But Beckham was 32 when he debuted in America, Henry nearly 33. For the first time in his career, Dempsey's age is a plus in his peer group: he came to MLS before he was out of other options. It's a boon for the league, it's a boon for American fans who like to watch their soccer stars in person, and -- despite Eurosnobs' harrumphing -- it may even be a boon to the World Cup squad.
And there is this: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will now face each other several times a year, something that has happened only once since Dempsey left for England in 2006 (Donovan, on loan to Everton in 2012, notched both assists in a 2-1 win over Fulham). ESPN, which airs MLS games, now has something more distinct to sell us than "Tune in Sunday as Landon Donovan and the L.A. Galaxy take on [a team you don't care about with no marketable stars]."
A rising tide raises all ships, and the gravity of Dempsey and Donovan will lift the profiles of Americans in MLS into the nation's awareness: Graham Zusi and Matt Besler of Sporting KC, Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson of the Earthquakes, Omar Gonzalez defending the back line of Donovan's Galaxy. MLS won't supplant Europe as a proving ground, but the addition of Dempsey to Donovan's league means we can at least embrace it as our own.
Part of the reason Americans gravitate to Dempsey more than Donovan -- besides their career decisions or styles of play -- is that Dempsey has built better walls around himself. Donovan's life includes a marriage to (and subsequent divorce from) a TV actress, a four-month leave of absence to find himself in Cambodia, and the water fountain picture seen 'round the world. There are gaffes, weaknesses. Deuce, in turn, recorded the famous Nike promo "Don't Tread" in 2006; since then, he's been known as "the rapping soccer player" despite releasing fewer tracks than 2Pac.
What little I know about Clint Dempsey is cobbled together from interviews and updates on his Twitter feed, neither of which happen frequently. I know that he likes bass fishing. I know he has three children. I know that he plays for the memory of his sister, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 16.
I know, thanks to the rabbit hole of YouTube, that he has credible instincts in barbecue: a video from 2007 shows Dempsey and future Sounders teammate Eddie Johnson getting ribs at Danny's Bar-B-Que, located in a strip mall in Cary, North Carolina. "This is supposed to be the hot spot," Dempsey says, "but as you see, it's right by Food Lion. It can't be that good." In the video, a RadioShack looms on the other side of the restaurant. "You'd think it would be a hole-in-the-wall place, that's always the best place to go eat." Clint Dempsey can lead you to brisket.
Everything else I know about Dempsey comes from what I see on the pitch: the aggression, the goals, the famous bitchface against Jamaica, his stoic brow during "The Star-Spangled Banner," his variety of goal celebrations -- the jump and fist-pump, the corner flag tap and salute, the finger-kiss and point to the sky.
I know that he is not the best American player in history, but that he's my favorite. I know that I will watch more MLS games because of him, and that I will be more invested in the U.S team next summer in Brazil more than any time in the two decades I've spent cheering for them.
I know that Clint Dempsey knows what's best for himself, and for his career. Clint Dempsey only moves forward.
And to those who might question that: DON'T TREAD.