Soccer in America and How Dempsey Changes Things

As some of the greatest European clubs in history head home after their pre-season tour of the United States, we are left with a longing for that same excitement and spectacle in Major League Soccer.  Even in pre-season their level of play is high and fast paced and full of dazzling trickery.  Not to mention goals.  Their teams are stocked with millionaires whose fame transcends the soccer world.  The constant close-ups of Cristiano Ronaldo’s tousled blonde-tipped hair give us an idea of his stature in pop culture.  Fans, mostly women, scream at his every touch of the ball.  A celebrity in every sense, even an icon.

MLS can’t match that and they shouldn’t, although they tried with David Beckham. MLS must be given a great deal of credit though.  The league is doing much better and the quality of play is improving.  Although still light years behind the European giants of the game they can compete side-by-side and make for an interesting match.  However, the salary cap issues, wage minimums, and the designated player situation in MLS, unless changed, will always keep the league a level below their European counterparts.  (I wrote a more in-depth and factual column regarding those MLS salary issues on Yanks Abroad.)

For now, the begging question and continual argument among U.S. soccer fans and MLS fans alike is how to improve MLS, while also improving the U.S. National Team and in the process increase the reputation of American soccer players abroad.

Clint Dempsey is one of those players who has elevated the American game and perception abroad.  He spent the last 7 seasons in the English Premier League, but last week made a surprise move back to the mainland  — Seattle to be specific.  Dempsey is arguably the highest regarded American soccer player currently, and definitely the most successful in Europe.  He signed a lucrative contract with the Sounders that coincides with that reputation.

It was a great move for MLS and I can’t see how it will hurt the league in any way, other than tying up a great deal of money for one player. That aside, it gives them star power, an elite player on the international stage (under 35), and the current face of American soccer.  It was a huge signing for MLS but also somewhat shocking.

Dempsey has always professed his desire to compete at the highest level.  He fought for an opportunity to move from Fulham to a club with UEFA Champions League ambitions.  He got that with Tottenham, and was one win away from qualifying last season for the prestigious tournament.  The London based club will surely be in the mix again this season for one of those top four spots.  He was playing in the best league in the world and alongside some of the elite players in the game.

Seattle will line his pockets with a reported salary just north of $5 million per season, not including bonuses.  He will be their star player and automatic pick on the team sheet every game by manager Sigi Schmid. Those are things that Tottenham could not match or guarantee.

His decision makes sense, if not for those reasons, maybe for the bigger picture of moving Major League Soccer one level higher.  If the league is ever among the best in the world his move to Seattle could be one of two monumental moments in MLS history.  When they look back they could say it was David Beckham and Clint Dempsey that pushed MLS from the shadows of the soccer world into the light.  Landon Donovan might also deserve a little credit.

It won’t be that simple, and that might be a disservice to all the low earning career players in the MLS cog that keep it chugging. History often proves that greatness is built on the backs of hard-working common folk, while the famous and powerful take the credit.

The real question is whether Dempsey playing in MLS will hurt or help the progression of soccer in the U.S.? Maybe it will have no real effect.

Or, is it more important for U.S. soccer that the best American players compete at the highest-level possible and on a world stage, wherever that might be? Remember, it’s the world’s game.

Is it better for the progression of basketball in Spain if Pau Gasol plays for the LA Lakers or if he goes back to play in Barcelona?

He would surely make the Spanish league far better but he would be selling himself short.

It’s a complicated tug of war between improving MLS but also making sure American soccer players compete at the highest level and show the world they can play the game.

When teams like Real Madrid and Chelsea and AC Milan come to the United States there is no choice but to compare them to MLS and to the American game.  They are all teams, simply, full of men competing against each other in a game with a ball.  This idea that comparing them is off-limits, as some protest, is an insult to American players and MLS.  If playing against the best is how you get better, then that is what American soccer players should always strive to do.

MLS must improve and it is, and it’s encouraging, but there might be some sacrifice to the game in the U.S. overall if it sets up a precedent of wooing Americans playing abroad to the states with checks full of zeros, especially when much of the league is getting by on sub par wages.

In the end this choice for Dempsey was his own.  No one forced it upon him but it doesn’t mean as dedicated fans of his, and U.S. soccer, and world football in general, we can’t question it. This Dempsey move will surely bring some of that excitement and spectacle to Seattle, if only a small nugget of what we saw from Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s easy to question his motives, but he has a country to carry on his back in the 2014 World Cup and must ensure he gets adequate playing time in order to do so.  He has a family and must provide for them as best he can.  Who am I to say he should turn down the millions of dollars and an opportunity to end to his career in his home country.

How it will impact MLS and more importantly U.S. soccer is something we’ll have to wait and find out.  But the encouraging part is that transfer moves like Dempsey to Seattle (while in his prime), and European clubs coming to the states more frequently in pre-season, are all signs that the sport is progressing in America.

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