The Clint Dempsey Revolution Begins in MLS
TORONTO – Eddie Johnson didn’t want to say it. Maybe he didn’t want to jinx his old friend and new teammate. He just wouldn’t call Clint Dempsey the best player in the United States right now. "He’s a top, top player,” Johnson said. That’s where he’d stop.
In this first game together again, playing for the Seattle Sounders, the two American forwards looked like they had a lot of fun. Dempsey, who signed a 3 and a half-year contract with Seattle last week, was happy with his first game back in Major League Soccer, the place where it all began for him. He played against Toronto FC for 62 minutes on Saturday night. His team won, and that’s all he needed to feel right at home again.
"It’s good to be back on the field with guys you’re familiar with," Dempsey said. "Once we have everybody fit and healthy and have our strongest team out there, I think we’ll be a tough team to contain.”
He’s played with Johnson before. He knows Brad Evans and Shalrie Joseph and even goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. They are nothing new. And after spending so much time on flights, in boardrooms, in training, Dempsey just wanted the ball at his feet. He may be 30 years old, making more than $5-million a year, but he talks as if he’s reliving his dream.
"What I enjoy is being on the field and playing. It’s what I dreamed about as a kid, to be a professional soccer player,” Dempsey said. "So when you’re on the field, you’re at home. It was good to get out on the field and get some touches, mix it up with the boys and get familiar with this league again.”
And MLS, by his own admission, is a much different place. Since 2006, when he last played in the United States for the New England Revolution, things have changed. Millions more watch MLS, and seven more teams exist. Seven years ago, Dempsey never even had the opportunity to play against a Canadian team in this league. He is happy, but not yet satisfied. The man talks like a commissioner, with big plans and a vision, about the things that’s happened and the things he could change.
"The league is good. It’s getting better, the quality and the competitiveness is getting better. You’re seeing more soccer-specific stadiums, more crowds come out to games, and you’re seeing MLS having more franchises popping up,” Dempsey said. "It shows that there’s a demand for it. It’s good to be back and continue to help the growth of the game here.”
This is his life now, and he accepts all the responsibilities that come with it. The media asks him things as if he’s a foreigner, but he isn’t. He’s just seeing the old world with new eyes. The captain of the United States men’s national team, Dempsey has never looked far away from MLS. He’s followed it, studied it, and even though he played in England, he is American. We forget that this is his home, but he admitted that it felt like a foreign place.
"It’s all about the continued growth of the league here and hoping that it keeps getting better and also that the quality gets better,” Dempsey said. "I think that’s going to come, and that’s obviously changed since 2006. The level is higher than what it was. It was good to get a test of what the league is like now.”
But he did show off. Yeah, just a little. He probably couldn’t help it. The flashy moves from the flashy signing. Why not?
A few times against Toronto FC, Dempsey flicked the ball with the back of his heel. One time he chipped the ball with the opposite foot, swinging behind the other. And finally, he tried to make dummies out of the defenders – quite literally. "On two occasions," he said, "I was trying to use the defender as a wall and tried to bend (the ball) around him. Unfortunately I hit it into him. That’s something that’s going to come with time.”
Little time was needed to fit in. Dempsey, taking the reins of the attack, began to distribute the ball – left, right, center. He had a few shots of his own: Some blocked, others wide, a few dead before they even got off the ground. But he threatened and schemed and tested. The mind was working – "I thought I was able to bring players into the game and create chances for my teammates,” he said – and the feet were moving. Sometimes, said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, the players around him moved a bit too quickly, too eager and giddy to play with Dempsey.
So Johnson gave the ball to his old friend as much as he could. He wanted Dempsey to finally play. Dempsey didn’t score in his first game, but he smiled. They all did. "You can see it already," Johnson said, "just the chemistry that we have with each other." The fans and the teammates all agree: This is exciting.
This piece was written by Anthony Lopopolo, a Senior Writer for AFR. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @sportscaddy. Comments below please.
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