Clint Dempsey’s To-The-Sounders Narrative

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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.

Times Squared

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.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent perspective and great read.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Paula on 2013/08/03 at 11:06 PM

    DeMerit is the right reference point here.

    Re Klinsi reaction: dude already uses a bunch of MLS players because they’re conveniently in season during the qualifiers. He can’t demand that players get regular playing time and at the same time complain about Dempsey trying to avoid a situation where he’s almost guaranteed a chunk of bench time in favor of younger players.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Jim on 2013/08/04 at 5:00 AM

    Bingo

    Reply

  4. Posted by Dan on 2013/08/04 at 7:41 AM

    Agreed. The writing was on the wall with additions of Paulinho, Soldado, and Chadli to go along with Sandro, Holtby, Dembele, and whoever they bring in with the 100mil from Bale. Dempsey was going to be relegated to 20 mins over the bench every other week, as well as some spot starts in the FA Cup against lower-tier sides.

    Once Sounders offered $9mil, Spurs weren’t going to take less than that from anyone else, especially not from another team in the EPL, just so Dempsey could continue to play at the highest level. That scenario would have them making less money off Dempsey as well as making a lower team in the table stronger. It was never going to happen.

    Dempsey’s choices were likely either ride the pine at Tottenham or go to Sounders and play every game. He chose the latter, and I think it was the best choice for him. He likely has one more World Cup run-out, barring an unlikely 35 y/o appearance in 2018, and it isn’t like a 30 y/o is going to develop any more from another year in Europe.

    The Deuce we have is the Deuce we’ve got at this point. No more, and no less.

    Reply

  5. I’ve read a lot of people that are either taking the move personal because he says he wanted to play in Champion’s League club or are selfish because they think it will ruin Dempsey for WC purposes.

    I see this as a good business move for Deuce for the last big paycheck and as someone noted above to play regularly. If he was already on the outs with Tottenham and really was not going to get 8 mil anywhere else, his chance for Champion’s League club were over. And he knew it.

    Example: What does a 30 year old RB do when offered either less playing time or only a 2 year 2.1 million? Either he takes the offer or seek another option… Deuce found another option and even better for him and most likely his family is moving back to US with really just one season of USMNT traveling again (not saying he will not play after WC2014 but lets be honest.. it would be for only 1-2 years left).

    I say he’s made the best choice given his options.

    Reply

  6. Appreciate the judicious reasoning of this article; especially regarding Clint’s family. These decisions are not made in the vacuum of just how does this effect his professional career. As fans we sometimes hyper-focus on the professional, disregarding the personal. I would guess that his family was a large factor in this decision as previous comments from Clint it seems that he values his family’s well-being and their concerns. Bethany Dempsey may have wanted to return to the US too after years away? They have young children and relatives missing them in the US. Who knows. Hope Clint is happy with his decision and it turns out well.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Len on 2013/08/04 at 6:34 PM

    I too appreciate the sober acceptance of this article (Is that what I see in Dempsey’s face as well?)

    Better for him to take Seattle’s armband than Tottenham’s bench. Now he can improve the league with his play and ticket money.

    It’s nice to hear Englishmen doing the U-S-A chant (now Jozy’s job), but I’d rather hear millions more Americans – both for MLS and the Nats.

    This is a good thing.

    Reply

  8. Well-written, makes a lot of sense. Definitely a good thing for everyone involved. Well, perhaps besides the EPL.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Soccertes on 2013/08/05 at 4:47 AM

    Agree with most of what’s been written here, in both the article and comments. Another way to distill this mash of factors into their immutable essense is this: Pro soccer players have a shelf-life of maybe 33-34 years in Europe. And that’s assuming good health, consistent production, and a team willing to stick with an aging player. After that, you’re done with your career. Think about what it would be like in your desk job if you knew you had to stop your job, and likely your greatest earning potential, at age 35. Forever. That’s 40+ years during which you’ll have to find other work or struggle trying to figure out how. For pro athletes, the best way to assuage that predicament is to avoid it by making enough now to for you and your family to live comfortably later. So that’s what you do: You take your payout if and when you can get it. For Clint, no other team in the PL or anywhere else in the world was going to pay him $32 million over the next 4 years. Guaranteed, no less. Combine that with the spectre of greatly diminished playing time – in the face of an upcoming World Cup that is likely his last – and the math is as simple and irrefutable as a law of nature. For Clint, the law was written on the wall: Take care of your own. That’s what he did. And given the math, who on Earth could blame him?

    Reply

  10. Really nice perspective (as always) on this front. As a Spurs fan for years before Dempsey arrived and as a huge Dempsey fan, was incredibly excited at his arrival last season. It’s taken a few days of shock to digest this insanity, but ultimately I realize this is probably the best thing for Clint’s career and his life after soccer. Sometimes we forget these guys’ careers can end at any moment and their earning power can completely disappear. I was baffled at the move until I heard the financial details and then everything started making much more sense. Will miss seeing him in blue and white (though not in the hideous new HP kits) but I’ll get over it.

    Really hoping that this makes an impact on the progression of MLS. Matt, in a future post, would love to hear your thoughts on the issues this raises from an MLS business perspective (i.e. the controversy with Portland, single entity structure, etc.) & impact on the future – does this create some momentum toward attracting even higher levels of talent to the league, etc.?

    Reply

  11. Posted by DT on 2013/08/05 at 7:52 AM

    Spot on! Clint will do well and hopefully develop more chemistry with EJ before WC2014. Taxes, man. His take home $ must be much better in Seattle than UK. Don’t discount the Stu Holden injury either. That could have been the convincing event to convince Deuce to secure his well deserved $ while he can.

    Reply

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