That was certainly my reaction when I first heard that the news of Clint Dempsey’s move to the Seattle Sounders was legit. Did anyone see this coming? I sure didn’t.
Not so soon after US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann threw down the gauntlet on Dempsey, saying, basically, he can’t feel he’d done squat in the game until he’d established himself on a team that plays in the UEFA Champions League, against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. And not so soon after, Klinsmann named him captain of the national team.
Yet there we were, Saturday night, looking at Dempsey in a Sounders jersey. And suddenly, we were trying to figure out what it all means. For the league and the player.
The instant analysis pretty much fell into two categories: best move ever, or worst move ever.
A day later, all I can come up with is: most shocking move ever.
Seriously, it’s the most shocking move in the nearly 18-year history of Major League Soccer. Not even the LA Galaxy’s signing of David Beckham (pictured) had as many of us asking, “Really?”
Where it goes from here is what will determine what this move really means for Dempsey and MLS. Because as much as some want to predict the future and write that this will be the best thing ever for MLS, or others insist this will be the worst thing ever for Dempsey, we just don’t know.
We’ve never seen a move like this in MLS, with an American player who’d made it big in one of Europe’s top league, still in his prime, coming home to play in the league. With all due respect to the original MLS players who gave up their jobs overseas to come home and stop the league, none of them had a resume anything close to that of Dempsey.
Those guys — John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Alexi Lalas, to name a few — left money on the table to help start MLS in 1996. Dempsey, from everything that’s been reported, is coming to MLS to make the kind of money no American soccer player has ever made.
This is uncharted territory, so we have to see how it will play out.
Consider this: One of the great criticisms of MLS has always been that regular season games don’t carry enough significance. That was all the rage last year, for example, when the Galaxy stumbled along through the regular season only to raise their level in the playoffs and win MLS Cup.
Well, the Sounders right now are on the wrong side of the thin red line that separates playoff teams from non-playoff teams. No one can say the remaining games on their regular-season slate don’t have meaning. It’s going to be on Dempsey to get this team above the line.
If he can get them into the playoffs, well, it’s going to be on him to lead them to their first league title.
As for Klinsmann’s Champions League comment, maybe the US manager changes that to, “CONCACAF Champions League.” So Dempsey won’t be part of a team that’s playing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Dortmund. Maybe he can one day help the Sounders get past Monterrey or Santos Laguna. Maybe he helps lift the profile of that competition and send the first MLS side to the FIFA Club World Cup.
It’s all on Dempsey. That’s the best I can come up with.
All those years ago when Landon Donovan (pictured) decided — for the second time — to come back from Germany and play in MLS, I can tell you that Bruce Arena, then the coach of the US national team, was not thrilled.
But Arena also realized he could not control where Donovan would live and play. Arena’s oft-repeated line back then was: "Landon seems to play his best when he’s happy. He’s happy in MLS." And then Arena would talk about how Landon was “the guy” in MLS and how that was a unique challenge in itself.
I suspect Klinsmann will have the same take on his captain's move, claiming that he’s happy for the player and his family to be coming home and to be making an amount of money unimaginable for an American player in his home league.
And there can be no argument that Dempsey is now "the guy" in MLS. Not just "the American guy" abroad.
Dempsey is now the face of the league.
Yep. Mind. Blown.