As the Best of 2013 continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 10 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. And after all the votes were cast by our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists, we're proud to unveil our choice for Story of the Year.
Clint Dempsey's return to MLS started with a seemingly innocuous airport photo. It eventually grew into one of the biggest signings in league history and fixed a bright light on the Seattle Sounders, who tried desperately to ride their new star to the promised land. Contributor Charles Boehm takes a look back at biggest story of the year.
It started as a low rumble of rumors, seemingly little more than a fevered mumbling of “silly season” gossip.
Yet that ripple – fuelled, as is so often the case these days, by social media – suddenly swelled into something bigger. Something that took hold of the faithful and fanciful first, but quickly swept like wildfire among those millions paying even the slightest bit of attention to soccer in the United States.
One airport photo surfaced on Twitter, then another. And within hours, a band of hardy fans had trekked out to their local airport hoping to hunt down the elusive subject in question, and see for themselves.
But his hosts had gone to great lengths to conceal him from the public's prying eyes, spiriting their man away from his flight's gangway via a stealthy van ride along the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
It wasn't a rock star, or a political icon, or an NFL or NBA headliner that was causing all this ruckus.
Clint Dempsey was coming home.
So why exactly is this the Story of the Year on MLSsoccer.com? After all, wasn’t this the year the league expanded to reach two more markets by 2015 and the year the league welcomed its first openly gay player with open arms?
Simple. Nothing moved the needle like Dempsey’s return to MLS a year before the World Cup. And when it became obvious the deal wouldn’t immediately pay dividends – the Seattle Sounders were somehow eliminated from the postseason earlier with Dempsey than they were in 2012 – it all became the latest example to show the league really is one of haves and have-nots now, and whether it all matters on the winner’s podium in December.
Either way, if you're the type who tracks notable milestones in the beautiful game's slow but inexorable spread across the North American sociocultural landscape, those heady days at the beginning of August won't soon be forgotten.
The dedication of both US national team and Seattle Sounders fans propelled the USMNT captain's unexpected trip from London to the West Coast on Aug. 1 into a real-time saga dubbed “#DempseyWatch” on Twitter, where it soon vaulted onto the medium's nationwide trending topics list and eventually became a textbook example of the value of hashtags. (Or “That One Where We All Lost Our Minds About Clint Dempsey,” as the Sounder at Heart blog dubbed it.
Was it real? How could this happen? What did it all mean? Joy, wonder and disbelief mingled in equal measure at the mere possibility that one of the USA's brightest stars might return to the league where he'd made his name.
“It was cool to try to keep it a secret for as long as we could keep it,” Dempsey said a few days later.
Dempsey was officially introduced to the Rave Green faithful in memorable style (video above). Joining majority owner Joe Roth at midfield in front of a typical bumper crowd at CenturyLink Field for a match against FC Dallas two days after he arrived in the Emerald City, the striker unzipped his hooded sweatshirt to reveal his Sounders jersey as the fans went wild.
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As the rest of the world soon learned, both MLS and Sounders executives had long harbored dreams of bringing Dempsey stateside. His lofty salary in England, combined with his well-known hunger to experience the UEFA Champions League, seemed like unconquerable hurdles for the foreseeable future, however.
“I've wanted Clint Dempsey since the day we started, but there's only one Clint Dempsey,” Roth told SI.com. “I just resigned myself to thinking we probably wouldn't get a Clint Dempsey until he was 35 years old, and I didn't want to add to the perception, which is mostly right, that we don't get European stars when they're in their prime.”
But in July, just one year after he'd gone to great lengths to prompt a deadline-day transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, Dempsey “realized he will not be part of [manager] André Villas-Boas’ strongest team,” in the words of the Daily Mirror, as the ambitious North London club splashed out on new signings with the extravagant proceeds from their impending sale of star winger Gareth Bale to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
So one of the United States' most successful and widely respected soccer exports found himself on the move again. And when the dust had cleared, it was an American club that had secured his signature to a historically lucrative contract, one with David Beckham-level implications not only on a financial level, but also in competitive and marketing terms.
“He’s a huge signing, not only for Seattle but for the league as well,” Dempsey's friend and teammate Eddie Johnson told AmericanSoccerNow.com. “It’s great to have a player of that caliber playing in MLS at his peak. I really feel it can promote the sport even further in the States.”
Dempsey's decision challenged the perceptions of MLS fans and detractors alike with his decision. Calling his transfer to Seattle “the most shocking move in the nearly 18-year history of Major League Soccer,” MLSsoccer.com senior writer Jeff Bradley used the term “uncharted territory” to describe the league's new, Deuce-altered reality.
“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,” Bradley wrote. “With all due respect to the original MLS players who gave up their jobs overseas to come home and [start] the league, none of them had a resume anything close to that of Dempsey.”
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Hampered by injuries and rhythm-disrupting international callups, Dempsey's Sounders career didn't get off to a perfect start, going goalless in his first eight matches before he and slumping Seattle were eliminated by archrivals Portland in the conference semifinal round of the playoffs.
But a brave new era had begun all the same, and in iconic fashion to boot.
“MLS and the Seattle Sounders, they moved mountains to get me here. I'm excited to be back in America, I love being here,” Dempsey said at his unveiling. “This is the league that gave me the opportunity, gave me my chance to be a professional. I’m happy to come back in my prime and be able to make a difference.”