Silly season became a shocking season on Saturday, when the Seattle Sounders unveiled Clint Dempsey as their newest signing. The move has sparked debate among American soccer fans about whether this a good or a bad move—or something somewhere in between. In an attempt to get an answer for myself, I tried to break this move down to its essential question: how does this change the future of American soccer?
1. Most American soccer fans, broadly speaking, have two long-term goals in mind when we talk about soccer in the States. One is the success of the national team, especially in the World Cup; the other is the growth of professional soccer in America to the point where we have a strong and well-attended domestic league, where there is general interest in the sport, and where soccer can be comfortably mentioned with the “big four” sports.
1a. To an extent, the first goal is also a means to accomplishing the second. The World Cup is the biggest stage in all of sports. An American team that plays well in the tournament and captures the attention of the country can lead, in turn, to long-term growth. (Just look at the health of MLS over the last three years, after Donovan’s epic game-winner at the death over Algeria.)
2. How do you make the domestic league—MLS—stronger? The main thing is acquiring talent at all levels: more talented homegrown American players, foreign imports with upside, and star players who are in the late-prime or tail end of their career.
2a. Of those three groups, the last group is the most important for drawing fan interest. While the league’s overall quality doesn’t rest on its core of stars, the casual fan is most easily engaged with superstar players—you can see the way attendance swells both in MLS (Beckham, Henry, Donovan) and other American leagues (LeBron) when star players visit as an away team.
3a. Despite scoring 57 goals in the Premier League and 37 at the international level, not one team in England was willing to pay the $9 million transfer fee to acquire his services. (The Sounders, on the other hand, are driving several dump trucks worth of money up to his house—at $8 million per year, he’s now the highest paid player in MLS history.)
3b. Dempsey is the captain of the U.S. National Team and probably its most potent offensive weapon. He is, in the world of American soccer, a superstar.
4. With the World Cup just eleven months away, some have criticized Dempsey’s move back to MLS as a step down, potentially weakening his form ahead of the biggest tournament in sports—a tournament that the USMNT, under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, suddenly has a tremendous amount of momentum towards.
4a. Regardless, the United States are not going to win the 2014 World Cup.
4b. In June of 2014, the difference in form between Clint Dempsey after a club season playing semi-regularly for Tottenham and Clint Dempsey at the mid-point of an MLS campaign will be marginal—or, at least, small enough that it will not be the sole determinant of whether the U.S. advances out of the group stage of the World Cup.
5. The project of U.S. Soccer is a long-term one. Maybe the team performs slightly worse in Brazil next year. But I think that’s a fair trade for an acquisition that changes the trajectory of MLS and the game as a whole in this country. And if Dempsey remains in top form, it will help bury the idea that MLS is not an internationally competitive league.
In the long run, an American superstar in his prime returning to MLS is unquestionably a good thing for American soccer. Clint Dempsey will become the face of the league, his battles with Landon Donovan and other U.S. internationals driving media coverage and fan interest. And, like Beckham and Henry before him, Dempsey will continue to legitimize the league—only this time, it will be for young Americans who will one day grow up to replace him.