Before the Seattle Sounders came onto the scene, no one thought an MLS team could average 40,000 fans a game.
Before this year, no one thought a MLS team could raid a top-level European team for their leading scorer.
Before last week, no one thought a MLS team could sign a US national team star in the prime of his career like Clint Dempsey.
In the span of five years, the Sounders have forced us all to redefine our expectations about American club soccer and then do it again, and again.
In signing Obafemi Martins (right) – who was in the midst of leading Levante to the Europa League Round of 16 -- the Sounders seemingly set a new bar about what kind of talent MLS teams could reasonably attract. Never before had a MLS team managed to lure away a player in a top league like Spain, especially one that was so dead-set on keeping that player, as Levante was.
At the time, Martins' seemed to be a major coup. Here was a reasonably high-profile 28-year-old Nigerian international, competing in one of the best leagues in the world after stops at clubs like Internazionale and Newcastle United, having a very good season – so good that his team threatened legal action to keep him.
In the past, it would have been unimaginable for an MLS team to even attempt such an audacious move. Yet, the Sounders managed to get their man and even did it in time for him to play the bulk of the season.
By itself, the move seemed to send a message that the Sounders were finally willing to really flex the financial muscle provided by their record-breaking crowds.
As we now know, it was only a precursor. The move to get Dempsey may not have been quite as audacious in its execution – no one is threatening to take the Sounders to court over this one – but it was even grander in scale.
While Dempsey may have been coming off a disappointing season, it was only seen as such in the context of elite European talent. His seven Premier League goals were obviously a far cry from the 17 he had scored a year earlier with Fulham, but they were the third highest total on a Tottenham side that featured the likes of Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor that finished just a single point short of a Champions League spot.
Dempsey remains the United States’ top scoring threat, having scored 16 goals for the USMNT during the past three seasons. In virtually every sense of the word, Dempsey remains an elite scorer.
It was no wonder, then, that even his teammates couldn’t quite come to believe the rumors when they first started to take hold on Thursday.
But if there was one team that could pull off a move like this, it had to be the Sounders. The ownership had promised at their end-of-year meeting that money would not keep them from pursuing top talent and these pair of moves prove just how serious they were.
It’s also comforting to see that both acquisitions were designed around bringing in talent, not selling shirts. Obviously, the Dempsey move checks both boxes, but the storyline really is “American soccer great comes to MLS”, as opposed to “Global superstar comes to America.”
For all the cackles that have been raised over this move – from the rumored amounts of money involved to the mechanisms used to acquire the player – even the cynics must admit that the Sounders and their fans have shown that playing winning soccer can be enough to become relevant in a market. Maybe, this is just the new reality.