So much remains the same, yet so much has changed.
For the second straight year Texas native Clint Dempsey is back in his home state as a member of the New England Revolution with a chance to help the club win its first-ever MLS Cup title. The 23-year-old will be looking to put the memory of last year's loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy behind him on Sunday when the Revs face Houston Dynamo in what will likely be a largely anti-New England crowd at Pizza Hut Park.
Once again the Revolution have won the Eastern Conference, and once again Dempsey has been a major part of it, scoring eight goals and adding four assists in 21 appearances during the regular season. And for the second consecutive year Dempsey will have the chance to win a title in front of a large contingent of family and friends who will make the 200-mile journey from his hometown of Nacagdoches, Texas, to Sunday's final. But that's about where the similarities end.
It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Dempsey. Between trips to Frisco he has played (and scored) in a World Cup, attracted international attention, openly discussed his desire to play in the top leagues in Europe and faced a few injury tests, most recently a sprained right ankle that has put him on the bench for a majority of New England's postseason run. He appears set to play at least some role in Sunday's contest, which could be the exclamation point on an already successful MLS career.
"I think there's a good chance that this could be my last game," Dempsey said Friday afternoon after participating fully in New England's training session at Pizza Hut Park. "There's definitely interest overseas and we'll have to take it as it goes after the season."
"Ideally, I want to make a move and I want to better myself. It's just one of those things that you just have to wait and see. Being an athlete, being a player, you don't always have control over things and you've just got to wait. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed and hopefully good things work out for me."
But Dempsey knows it's first thing first and it's clear that his top priorities are getting healthy and helping the Revs to victory Sunday. His coach is confident that the other storylines are floating somewhere in the back of the striker's mind.
"I think he wants to do well for the team. He obviously wants to play well. Individually, we all want to do well," said Revolution head coach Steve Nicol. "I don't think that's in the front of his mind. I just think he wants to be part of us hopefully winning the championship."
There has been plenty of speculation about what will happen to Dempsey at the conclusion of the 2006 season and it seems likely that more change is in store for the Furman University product.
"Clint has another year on his contract here. He's said he wants to go play at the top level. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all," Nicol said. "I think it's great to have that sort of ambition. Certainly with the ability he has, I'm sure if that opportunity arose he would do great."
Rumors have linked Dempsey to teams from Charlton Athletic to Atletico Madrid, but he made no secret of his strongest desires Friday, though it's clearly not a case of tunnel vision either.
"I want to go to England, ideally," he said. "I'll just have to take it and see what happens. If not, I'd like to go to Germany or Spain, but right now we have to wait until the season's over."
In Nicol, Dempsey has a coach with top-flight experience. The Scot was a hugely popular member of Liverpool's side from 1982-95. Nicol is convinced that Dempsey will have successes no matter where his yellow-brick road leads.
"I think he could go anywhere and excel. At the end of the day, he can play the game," Nicol said. "He's got good feet, he loves the game, he loves playing, he can score goals. I don't think there's a coach anywhere in the world that doesn't want a player with all those things."
Although Dempsey realizes that Sunday's match could be his last in his native league, he said it wouldn't add any pressure to the situation.
"This last game is not going to make or break me," he said. "I feel I've showed the world, I've showed this country, that I know how to play soccer ... I feel like I've done enough and the interest is a proven fact that I have done that.
"Right now, the most important thing is MLS Cup and seeing if we can win a championship for this club."
Regardless of what the result is when the final whistle blows this year in Frisco, it's a pretty safe bet that in another 12 months, Dempsey will still be making an impact on the field. Just where that field will be, though, is still to be determined.
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.