By signing Clint Dempsey in 2013 Seattle established itself as one of the top MLS markets, and the Sounders added a player who would bring the promise of an MLS Cup title. More than two years later, it’s worth asking whether those statements hold true.
Clint Dempsey stepped from the darkness of a CenturyLink Field tunnel, unzipped his sweatshirt and revealed an unmistakable shade of bright green growing beneath.
In the stands, neighbors nudged neighbors, diehards rubbed their eyes in disbelief and casual fans stood there with gaping mouths. Word spread fast, from Renton dive bars to British pubs, making waves on both sides of the sea.
The evening of Aug. 3, 2013, during halftime of a home match against FC Dallas, outlandish rumors turned barely-more-believable truth. One of the most accomplished American soccer players of all-time had traded the English Premier League for Major League Soccer. And not just any MLS club — not Los Angeles, not New York — but Seattle.
Big contracts, payrolls
Highest-paid players in MLS by guaranteed compensation for 2015:
1. Kaka, Orlando City, $7,167,500.00
2. Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto, $7,115,555.67
3. Michael Bradley, Toronto, $6,500,000.00
4. Steven Gerrard, L.A., $6,332,504.00
5. Frank Lampard, New York City FC, $6,000,000.00
6. David Villa, New York City FC, $5,610,000.00
7. Jozy Altidore, Toronto, $4,750,000.00
8. Clint Dempsey, Seattle, $4,605,941.50
9. Robbie Keane, L.A., $4,500,000.00
10. Giovani Dos Santos, L.A., $4,100,008.00
11. Jermaine Jones, New England, $3,052,500.00
12. Obafemi Martins, Seattle, $3,000,000.00
Note: In 2014, Dempsey was MLS second-highest paid player at $6.7 million, behind Kaka’s $7.2 million, and was MLS’ highest-paid player when he signed in 2013.
Highest payrolls in MLS by guaranteed compensation
1. Toronto, $22.8 million
2. L.A., $19.5 million
3. New York City FC, $17.9 million
4. Orlando City, $11.5 million
5. Seattle, $11.4 million
6. New England, $6.6 million
7. Chicago, $6.3 million
8. Vancouver, $6.2 million
9. Kansas City, $5.6 million
10. Philadelphia,, $5.6 million
The moment Dempsey unzipped that gray hoodie, Seattle established itself as one of the top markets in MLS, and the Sounders repaid the masses who had filled CenturyLink every other weekend with the player who would bring the promise of an MLS Cup championship.
More than two years later, the glossy shine beginning to dull and adoring fans beginning to grumble, it’s worth asking whether those statements hold true.
Has Clint Dempsey lived up to the hype and the then-league-record cost? And if a similar opportunity were to arise, in their post-Seahawks era, could the Sounders still afford it?
The makings of a deal
Owner Adrian Hanauer remembers the buzz in the stadium in the late summer of 2013, the goosebumps and the message the ownership group was trying to send.
The Sounders hadn’t been conservative, exactly. But Hanauer admits it took until roughly the end of Year 5 to stop wondering whether the huge crowds would keep showing up.
“The signing of Clint was a bit of taking the training wheels off,” Hanauer said this week.
The wheels began turning in July 2013, when MLS executive J. Todd Durbin and commissioner Don Garber reached out to Hanauer and majority owner Joe Roth. Negotiations moved so quickly that when Hanauer spent a day off the grid hiking Mount Rainier, he recalls a feeling of creeping doubt when he walked up the mountain and certainty that the deal was coming together when he checked his phone on the way down.
The contract didn’t come cheap. Per Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the deal cost $33 million. The league covered the $9 million transfer fee, but the Sounders were on the hook for the three-and-a-half year, $24 million contract. At the time of the signing, and according to figures provided by the MLS Players’ Union, Dempsey’s annual contract was even richer than David Beckham’s in L.A. — albeit without the Englishman’s cut of jersey and ticket sales.
For their first five MLS seasons, the Sounders partnered with the Seahawks and part owner Paul Allen for administrative support.
Dempsey’s Sounders stats
2015: 18 games, 8 goals, 9 assists
2014: 26 games, 15 goals, 10 assists
2013: 9 games, 1 goal, 0 assists
But though the club broke away from its NFL safety net the offseason following the Dempsey signing to run its own operations, Hanauer said the split hasn’t lowered the club’s ambitions. And a busy 2015 summer transfer window headlined by another Designated Player signing in Nelson Valdez lends legitimacy.
“The equation for investing in a player like Clint and/or Oba (Martins) had nothing to do with the Seahawks,” Hanauer said. “It had everything to do with revenue, with current revenue and anticipated revenue.
“I don’t think it has changed our philosophy towards building a roster and spending. Our revenues are steady.”
What drives Clint Dempsey?
Asked about the challenge of getting the most out of the enigmatic forward, former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley recalls the night before the team’s final group stage game at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa.
The U.S. needed to beat Egypt by multiple goals, and it needed help elsewhere. Bradley needed more from his poker-faced young star, and he told Dempsey exactly that.
“That conversation is something that I’ll never forget,” Bradley said by phone from his current coaching job in Norway. “We laid it all out on the table. It was man to man, and it set the tone for us believing that we could still do things in that tournament.”
Dempsey is a player at his best when he’s being challenged, Bradley said, being pushed to find an extra gear.
The next day, Dempsey scored the third goal that sent the Americans through — wheeling away from goal with veins popping in his neck — and scored again a few days later as the U.S. stunned future World Cup champion Spain. He later netted the opener in the championship game that Brazil eventually came from behind to win.
“It wasn’t always that Clint wanted to hear those sort of things, but he would take those things in,” Bradley said.
What drives Dempsey at this point in his career, an established star instead of the snarling young upstart, is harder to pin down. The 32-year-old says he’s driven to deliver Seattle’s first MLS Cup, and Sounders coach Sigi Schmid adds that the player is passionate about improving the domestic league and leaving a lasting legacy.
Last month, while recovering from a lingering hamstring injury, Dempsey mostly floated anonymously through Seattle’s must-win match at Vancouver before providing a window into his spirit.
With less than 10 minutes left, Dempsey tangled with Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston after a rough tackle near the midfield stripe. The hulking center back puffed his chest, but Dempsey just smirked. Moments later, the forward gathered a pass and surged forward with a solo run. He held off Vancouver’s Russell Teibert with a stiff-arm, then muscled inside the box with a powerful swim move. Dempsey cut back a pass for Martins for a tap-in goal.
It wasn’t anything more than competitive juices boiling to the surface. But the moment sealed a 3-0 victory and backed up teammates’ claims that Dempsey pops up when his team needs him.
Appreciated by teammates
That’s the thing about Dempsey: For all the grumbling that has grown louder on the outside during a frustrating season, teammates and team officials dismiss criticism with a waving hand.
Dempsey, like so many midseason MLS signings, struggled to adjust during his first half-season. In Year 2, the forward admitted to being run down late in the year after going on loan in England with Fulham in the winter to prepare for coming World Cup.
And this year — just when Dempsey and Martins appeared to have hit another level in their on-field understanding — he got suspended for ripping up a referee’s notebook during a U.S. Open Cup match. Though Dempsey admits to being frustrated by an injury-pocked 2015, he said he’s content with both his production this season and his overall output during his time in Seattle.
“It seems like it’s taken me a while to get back to full fitness,” Dempsey said. “I’ve contributed a (point) a game (this year). I’m happy with that return, but I’m pushing to get more goals.”
His teammates back him up. Asked whether Dempsey should focus more on the Sounders instead of heading out on international duty with the national team so often, Perkins shakes his head animatedly.
“There’s never a question when you get called up by your country that you’re going to go play for them,” Perkins said. “That’s what you dream about as a kid.”
Dempsey’s languid style of play has been a lightning rod going back to his early years with the national team — and is a study in contrasts with strike partner Martins, whose livewire game is a constant state of motion. But few on the inside question his effort.
“There’s guys out there on the field that look like they’re going 100 miles per hour all the time but really aren’t going anywhere or doing anything,” Schmid said. “You can misinterpret, sometimes, what (Dempsey) does, because a lot of time he’s looking for that space, that right moment, that little pocket where he can make things happen.”
Dempsey isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy leader dispensing locker-room hugs, but there’s a reason he captained the national team for so long. Peers follow his actions. And in a league where stars make exponentially more than basement-bargain teammates, Dempsey’s down-home Texas roots help him relate.
“Clint walks around in sweatpants, Nike high-tops and T-shirts all day,” Perkins said. “That’s the difference.”
Has Dempsey lived up to the hype and the cost? That depends on whom you ask.
But the answer is almost unanimous in the Sounders locker room — both on and off the record — even if it hasn’t always been that way in the CenturyLink stands.
“It’s certainly been everything we expected, both on and off the field,” Hanauer said. “But ultimately, winning championships is the name of the game.
“I’m practical and realistic to know that one guy can’t win you championships. I know Clint is going to go out there and do everything he can to help us get there. As an owner, that’s everything that I can ask for.”