Writer Jason Lemire has worked in the front offices of several MLS franchises and most recently was General Manager of The Pali Blues Soccer Club during the ascendance of the Tony Danza Army.
In the words of U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan, “A rumor’s not a rumor that doesn’t die.” Come Monday morning, Keyser Söze will officially be in the building.
Predictably, the comments section of every website from ESPNFC to Uncle Snuffy’s Backyard Kickaround (pretty sure that’s a soccer blog) are currently being filled with posts decrying this move as the worst thing to happen to US soccer since… well… anything involving Freddy Adu.
The collective disgust – yes, people are “disgusted” – reads more or less like this:
“WHAT? MLS is a major step down for a player still in his prime!”
“This runs counter to Klinsmann’s “take it to the next level” credo!”
“Clint is giving up on his dreams!”
“Clint won’t be as good in Brazil 2014 because of this move!”
And all of it is either somewhat shortsighted, or perfectly represents an ethos among a certain American soccer fans that frankly needs adjusting.
With this in mind, let us consider how maybe, just maybe, this move is a good thing, and how said good thing would ultimately debunk the above concerns.
1. What makes a transfer a good transfer?
Assuming we are looking at the situation through the lens of an American soccer fan who cares about both the US National Team and the growth of our sport as a whole, assessing the quality of an individual player’s transfer generally comes down to the question of: will this move help the player develop. There is little debate that at this point in time, the big leagues of Europe have the capacity to both accelerate and hone the technical and tactical development of a young player in a manner superior to MLS. If you want to debate this point that’s fine, but for the time being let’s operate under the assumption that Clint Dempsey would not have developed into the elite international player that he is today had he stayed with the New England Revolution.
Fine. Now back to the original question: will this move help the player develop. And that is the question we must ask now. Clint is 30. His technical and tactical development has, for all intents and purposes, happened; which means that the usual considerations that go into assessing the value of a transfer kind of go out the window. I am not talking about sharpness or quality of opposition here (more on that later), I am strictly examining where it is that Clint’s game still has room to grow, and I would submit that the answer is neither technically nor tactically. Nor does Clint need to develop his ability to “handle the big game”, as this is something he has been dealing with his whole career, and indeed his entire life. No, there is only one area where Clint still has real room to develop: leadership.
Read interviews with members of the national team and they will all say that Clint is a guy who “leads by example.” But the fact is, once you’re named captain of your national team, the guy tasked with leading the troops both on the field and in the locker room, “leading by example” just isn’t good enough. Though personable and charismatic off the field, Clint clearly comports himself with something of a lone wolf persona, occasionally letting other guys into his world (see his 2011 Gold Cup celebration with Landon), but for the most part playing the role of brooding gunslinger. The only trouble is, such a persona does not lend itself to the kind of leadership a team needs to succeed over the course of a tournament like the World Cup, and though there are a handful of other players in the locker room who could potentially fill that role, they are not wearing the armband.
People often regard leadership as an intangible quality, something you have or you don’t; but such a concept for leadership underestimates the degree to which it is a skill that can be cultivated. Indeed, there are entire sections of the bookstore dedicated to the cultivation of leadership skills, and the reason why such books continue to sell is because a lot of them work.
So, if the most glaring hole in Dempsey as a player is his leadership ability, it seems that American fans should be judging the quality of his transfer on whether or not his new team presents the sort of environment where he might be able to cultivate this skill. Let’s see, how about a team stocked with talent but short on cohesion and morale in the middle of a desperate playoff push; a team where being an American gets you instant respect instead of instant skepticism; and a team that has among the best youth set ups for young American players in the world, all of whom would be grateful to learn from a player who has succeeded at the international level. Might that be a good place to take one’s identity as a captain “to the next level”?
2. What’s more important, being “fresh” or being “sharp”?
Or perhaps the better question is, “how sharp can you be if you’re 31 and exhausted?” Reasonable people can debate which league is “the best”, but it is clear that the EPL has built its global brand on being the most physically explosive and demanding league in the world. So it begs the question, had Dempsey stayed in the EPL, what kind of shape would his body have been in come June 2014? There is a big difference between being 27 and being 31.
For those US fans who wring their hands at the notion that Clint will somehow lose his edge upon rejoining the MLS, what exactly do you think happens to Clint’s “edge” when he spends a month in pre-Cup camp training with his US teammates, hardly any of whom play in the EPL? “Oh no, Matt Besler is defending me in a scrimmage, now I can’t remember how a Cruyff turn works!” Or is it more, “Oh Kyle Beckerman, beating you on the dribble is sooo easy, now my muscle-memory will think this is how easy it is every time!” The whole thing is just nonsense. It’s one thing if you have never faced top class defenders day in and day out. That’s why young players should go to Europe. But Clint has, for seven years. He’s not going to forget just because he spends a couple months going against Jamison Olave. Oh wait, Jamison Olave actually isn’t that bad.
Winters off do a 30+ year old body good. Fresh equals sharp. Sharp equals goals.
3. But what will I tell my English friends and casual associates?
Admit it. If you are one of those people lamenting Dempsey coming back to the league “while he still has 2 to 3 EPL quality years in him”, the real thing you are concerned about is how you are going to show your face at that English pub you go to to watch your “football.” Well, to borrow one of the island’s more charming terms, “sod off.”
Seriously? Are you really serious right now? Look. The strength and quality of soccer in this or any country is defined in two ways and two ways only: how good is your domestic league and how well does your national team perform in international competitions? Everything else is crap. Dempsey moving to the Sounders improves him, improves our chances in Brazil, and improves our domestic league. Done deal.
(I could go on for several pages about how useless it is to seek the approval of ex-pat Englishman when it comes to soccer. I won’t. But if you do, stop it.)
4. But what will Klinsmann think? (Secretly this is still about those English guys at the pub.)
Honestly, anyone trying to answer this question would probably be better served contemplating how life would have evolved on this planet without a moon; however, one thing that does appear clear about Klinsmann is that man likes to take the long view. And with this in mind, what is better for the long term health of the sport in this country: Clint going to Everton and having a good year, or Clint becoming the defining face and personality of a league poised to blossom in the next five to ten years. “But, but, all those English guys would have nodded approvingly at my Everton jersey, and then I could have engaged them in a conversation about the Merseyside derby and then we could talk about how I spent a semester abroad once and how I played a few years of college ball but really the highlight for me was when I was actually in a pub in London when…”