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Player Spotlight

Ambition Adjustment: Clint Dempsey Returns to MLS

Clint Dempsey's move from Tottenham Hotspur to Seattle Sounders is a major coup for Major League Soccer. But is it the best thing for Dempsey himself, and for the U.S. national team?
BY John Godfrey Posted
August 03, 2013
10:54 AM
PEOPLE ARE ALLOWED to change their minds. It happens all the time, even to soccer stars.

That said, Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur represents a whiplash-inducing 180-degree change of direction for the United States captain and No.2-ranked player in the ASN 100.

Instead of challenging Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal and Manchester City over the next 9 months for a spot in Europe's Champions League, Dempsey’s next four matches could be against TorontoFC, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, and Columbus Crew.

It’s a steep drop in terms of competition and a fascinating, shocking change of heart for one of the best-ever American soccer players.

Over the years Dempsey has repeatedly said that he is driven to play soccer at the highest-possible level. Competing in the European Champions League, he has said, is his ultimate club goal, and Dempsey fell just short last season when Arsenal eked out a fourth-place Premier League finish, one spot ahead of Spurs.

(We reached out to get a comment from U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but a U.S. soccer spokesman informed us that Klinsmann is vacationing in Europe and unavailable.)

Tottenham reportedly let it be known that Dempsey was available for a price, and the deep-pocketed Sounders jumped at the opportunity.

Dempsey’s rationale for moving back to MLS will no doubt be coming soon, and the refreshingly candid 30-year-old will likely provide honest answers to all lines of inquiry. Until then, we've assembled a few previously published quotes from Dempsey about his drive and ambition to succeed on the highest levels, as well as a few comments from Klinsmann.

Together they provide a vivid backdrop for Dempsey's move, and underscore the seismic nature of his move to Seattle.

June 2011, Mail Online
“Right now I’m thinking about Europe and playing in the Champions League. That’s a goal. Everyone wants to play at the highest level. If someday I get the opportunity to play for a big club in the Champions League, that would be great.

I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a dream. But at the same time you have to make the most of where you are. I've been here [Fulham] for four and a half years and I've had a successful career in England, which is one of the toughest leagues in the world.

But there are better things to come for me. I need to keep working hard and better myself and see where i can take this. I don't want to have regrets.”

May 2012, Sports Illustrated
"I want to do as much as I can in my career and look back and say I made the most of all the opportunities I've had. I'm always going to want to play in Champions League. It's something I've never done. I'd like to test myself at that level. That way I can look back and say, 'Hey, I gave it a go. Either I was good enough or I wasn't good enough.'

If I wanted to be comfortable, no offense to MLS, but I would've stayed in MLS, 'cause I would have been closer to my family and friends, and I would have been used to the way of life. I'm a risk-taker. I want to throw myself in the deep end and see if I can swim."

June 2013, New York Times
“For me, it’s about the fight. The whole season we had something to fight for and trying to get into the top four, that’s exciting. That’s what it’s all about. It’s what you enjoy. We’ll regroup and do it again next season.

I hope for me that the Champions League is in the cards. I know we’re in it every year. The team always gets stronger and that’s what we’re shooting for. It’s the club’s goal. That, and always finishing in the top four. I think at Tottenham there’s been a change in mentality. There are higher expectations on the team. It puts more pressure on you as an individual because other teams are always trying to beat you. It’s more difficult, but being able to deal with the pressure is exciting. It’s what you want to play for at the highest level. It makes you better, the competition fighting for spots to get on the field. It’s what helps me get better.”

These and similar comments tend to make American soccer supporters' hearts beat a bit faster. There's no defeatism or humility—attributes often associated with U.S. soccer players playing abroad—just pure competitive edge. And when you marry Dempsey's words with similar words uttered by United States national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, it's easy to see why the latter gave the former the captain's armband earlier this year.

“Is he highly talented? Does he have all the tools that you need to have to play at the highest level? Yes," Klinsmann said. "But what is far more important: He has the drive. He has the hunger. He's not satisfied. He's not satisfied today with scoring two goals against Germany, because he will only be maybe a little bit more satisfied if he scores in Jamaica. He always looks for the next game. It is just in his own being, having that inner drive."

“Having a player like Clint Dempsey is a privilege, and if I look back, I think this is one of the best players in U.S. history.”

Given what both Dempsey and Klinsmann have said about competitive zeal, and given the fact that the 2014 World Cup is just 10 months away, how should American soccer fans look at this move?

Is it great for Major League Soccer but less so for the U.S. national team?

Is it a a shrewd financial decision for Dempsey (Seattle will reportedly pay him $8 million a year for four years) but also a change of scenery that could limit Dempsey's development as a player?

As always, we're eager to hear your take. The comments section below is open, and we've also created an ASN Matrix on the Dempsey transfer—please check it out.

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now.

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