In sports there are always three narratives.
There’s the game and what happened. That narrative is not really a narrative at all. It’s indisputable. Zlantan wonder volley. That Landon Donovan pass. USA 2 – Spain 0. From box scores to YouTube, that stuff happened. There is empirical evidence. Archives.
Then there’s the media narrative. The range of truth and objectivity here is divergent, contradictory and above above all mercilessly shaped like the topography after a flash flood. It’s Game of Thrones references, grandiose metaphors that invoke some obscure playwright from yesteryear and hyperbolic parallels to sports legends with few video clips. All of this telling us the circumstance or reasoning behind “what happened.”
That narrative is completely disputable and its salty fodder that the media leaves out like cheese on a trap for a mouse to take. Snap! We gotcha. This is how you should see it.
Then there’s the “what truly happened” narrative. It’s often non-present as the event or moment transpires or it’s recounted sometime after the fact when sensitivities have dulled. Or rarely recounted at all.
Clint Dempsey’s move to the Seattle Sounders in MLS gathered up all those narratives, blended them on a frappe setting and spilled them out without warning on the American soccer fan this past Friday afternoon.
To be clear, the media narratives on Dempsey have always been voluminously tentacular though “what happened” remained indisputable.
Dempsey leaves England with 57 deposits in his account, the most ever by an American. In fact that goal total matches all of the next three Americans in England combined, the industrious Brian McBride, playmaker Roy Wegerle and a tie of Joe-Max Moore and Carlos Bocanegra.
Dempsey’s goal haul puts him 60th all-time on the Premiership goal list heading into this season, a lofty #7 for non-Europeans. Let that sink in. Clint Dempsey, as many goals as all but six non-Europeans to have played in the Prem. Ever. And this for a player who didn’t make the jump abroad until relatively late in his career; all was accomplished in six and a half seasons.
But beyond these topline numbers on Dempsey, the shape of the Dempsey story has been carved incongruously. Dempsey is the cliched sports enigma. Sure there were goals by the truckload at Fulham, but he also saw a lot of the ball and could he do it at a bigger club? Sure, he scores goals, but they are lucky or lunchpail with little skill; he’s not a true goal scorer. Dempsey never was bundled in with the Rooneys, Tevez’s or even Bents in his time playing out of London. TSG wrote about the somewhat negative stigma here.
Then there’s the American narrative on Dempsey which–since 2009–has shifted intentionally or not. 2008-2009 saw Dempsey as a shoot-em up cowboy, going out on the range when he felt like it and drawing against the competition as and when he saw it. The petulant and unfocused Dempsey, who TSG invoked Marvin Gaye to provide a narrative then.
By 2012 Dempsey had evolved–as Landon Donovan’s star and desire waned–to the top American in Europe. A Champion’s League-seeking, fire-burning-in-himish, fuck-off, try-shit media creation challenged by USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsman–”he hasn’t won shit”–but then contradictorily given the national team armband.
It’s this narrative here that American fans find most troubling with Dempsey’s Seattle relocation–and rightfully so.
The American soccer overlord out to prove–globally–that the US could play with the best. The pieces on Clint desire popped up just about everywhere. Clint aspired to Champion’s League. Clint was going to Arsenal. Clint defines ambition. Nike centerpiece.
It’s inescapable. Americans–fans of MLS or not–don’t consider MLS the pinnacle. And it’s not. And they want their stars to reach the heights. And the media blitzkrieg around Dempsey ever since Donovan went walkabout was bigging up the Texan for bigger things.
It was supported by the national team coach challenging his best player and then further talking him up, eager for him to fly the flagship of American skill and get more reps and better competition… because that’s what he, the coach, did.
So that narrative with Dempsey’s move state side goes kerplunck like a weighted lure from the former Fulham fisherman himself.
The real tale probably won’t ever be known, but it likely goes a little something like this:
» US player fights from a tough upbringing to make it one of the top-50 footballers in one of the top, if not the top, soccer leagues in the world.
» Player fights for playing time each season and proves himself to new coaches and last year to a new team.
» Told yet again–for the sixth consecutive time–that his services are surplus to requirements. The player finally says, “Fuck it, I’m the star. I’m not getting a Champion’s League shot, except as a squad guy at a discount. I don’t need to prove anything else.”
Why go down or somewhat laterally (Sunderland, Everton) for less money? To prove what? To test playing time?
» MLS wiggles a massive paycheck, four-year security, and a chance to settle his family down, back in the States. And validate him–more than Europe could or would at this point–that he’s the star.
There’s a point where every player’s personal visage intersects logic. It’s inevitable. It’s age. It’s the youngster from the Bundesliga who looks like Ryan Gosling’s hipster doppelganger who was just brought in who plays the same position. It’s phone calls like Jay DeMerit got from Werder Breman post the 2010 World Cup–”We’ll take you. For a year. But here’s our terms.”
Nobody batted an eye when DeMerit returned.
Ambition intersecting with reality. Reality often wins that one.
It’s not Hollywood and it’s not the hyped narrative. But it’s probably what happened.