As Landon Donovan showed the benefits of putting his own physical and mental well being ahead of the threat of harsh words from faceless critics with a Golden Boot winning performance at the Gold Cup, it turned out Clint Dempsey was also reassessing what's most important to him. Less than a month later, MLS as a whole and Seattle Sounders fans in particular won the lottery with a ticket they didn't know they bought when Dempsey was announced as the club's newest and biggest signing.
While still convulsing from the shock of the move, MLS supporters and scoffers trampled over each other to shout their disparate judgements from the tops of mountains (and through various social media accounts). This was both an undeniable show of the league's pulsating strength and the death knell of Clint Dempsey's respectable career. It was the United States reclaiming their best player from the clutches of those dastardly Europeans with their superior competitions and it was Clint Dempsey giving up. As antithetical and extreme as all of the snap conclusions were, they were all entirely focused on Clint Dempsey the player. Clint Dempsey the worker. Clint Dempsey the commodity.
But underneath all the handwringing and back patting and head shaking and high fiving of others, it was just a person, like most every other person, who wanted himself and his family to be as happy as humanly possible. And to achieve this, he felt it was necessary to go back to living in his native country.
The combination of wealth and idolization and expectation of awe-inspiring skill fosters a weird sort of resentment that causes too many fans and journalists to forget that professional athletes are not just chaste game pieces always at the service of the devoted. Their humanity is a constant nuisance to this ideal, but the expectation of selflessness and undying loyalty to the team, the fans, the sport and always needing to be more remains the norm. We don't root for people, we root for performers.
When Landon Donovan decided to leave Bayer Leverkusen and play in MLS early in his career because he was homesick, he was mocked and branded as weak. Homesick? A professional athlete homesick?! They are only allowed to feel sadness when they fail and happiness when they help their team. No other emotions, no other reasons.
"People just miss the point," a 24-year-old Donovan told ESPN before the 2006 World Cup. "I just want to be happy. If I'm happy, I can play with anybody in the world. I could be over there [Europe] and I could be successful, but I would never come close to being as happy as I am here. No matter how much better it might make me, it would never be worth it. ... Soccer is important to me. It's not everything to me."
Despite the sensibility of those words, success in their work is still considered the only acceptable source of an athlete's happiness. And so when Clint Dempsey faced the press for the first time as member of the Seattle Sounders, he first tried to explain himself in terms of work and loyalty and success.
"A few weeks ago, the opportunity came up where my agent asked me if [the move] were something I'd be interested in," Dempsey explained, losing his voice from the uncharacteristic amount of talking he's had to do of late. "And I said 'for sure.' I've always followed the league — it's the league that gave me my chance to become professional and I wanted to be able to come back when I'm in my prime and not when I'm past it to help continue the growth of this league and of this club."
The desire to return to MLS "in his prime" to help the league that gave him his start is a lovely sentiment and it's probably an honest one. It's also a relatively new one.
Before Dempsey spoke, Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer began the press conference by telling his side of the story: "Starting about two years [ago], I would call the league or be in contact with Lyle Yorks, Clint's agent, and inquire about Clint. And the answer was always 'No chance. No chance, no chance, no chance.' So every few months I would call and get the same answer. So about five weeks or so ago, there started to be some rumors from England that maybe Clint could be sold by Tottenham. We didn't know if they were rumors or if there was any validity to it, but it was an opportunity to pick up the phone again. I called Lyle again and the answer was still 'No chance.' So we sort of went on our way, assuming that that would continue to be the case. And then I'd say about two and half weeks ago, I got a call from Todd Durbin in the MLS office. Concurrently the commissioner was reaching out to [Sounders owner] Joe Roth and the message was 'there might be a chance.' "
Going from a refrain of "no chance" to signing with Seattle in a matter of days is a drastic change that probably wasn't prompted by a sudden desire to HELP MLS RIGHT NOW! He still had two years left on a deal with Spurs that he just signed last summer. After first attempting to force a move from Fulham to Liverpool before settling on Tottenham. He went from being a star at a smaller club to a supporting part at a bigger one and still he was just barely missing out on the Champions League football he tried to engineer his 2012 transfer to reach. At 30-years-old — two years younger than a "past-it" David Beckham was when he joined MLS — it had become clear in the last 12 months that he probably reached as high as he could climb in the hierarchy of European football. And, along the way, he proved himself to be the best American outfield player ever in the Premier League.
But Dempsey had to scratch some bellies before he could get to the primary reasons. The personal reasons. The things that guide everyone's major life decisions that athletes have to pretend they leave for last. If he started by saying that, as Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported, he was getting an MLS record base salary of $6.86 million a year (David Beckham got $6.5 million plus a percentage of ticket and jersey sales), he would be labeled a greedy, soulless mercenary. If he started by saying he missed home, he would've gotten a taste of the Landon Donovan treatment, albeit tempered by his accomplishments.
So with the sincere niceties and selflessness groundwork laid down, Dempsey slipped in his deeper thoughts before tempering it with more work talk.
"I had two more years on my contract. I was already starting to get the itch, to be honest with you. I wanted to come back to the States. I just missed being in America. That's where I was born. And uh, you know, I wanted to help continue the growth of the game."
Landon Donovan took four months off from the game last winter for physical and mental exhaustion. He considered retirement. He needed a break. He was called disloyal. He was called selfish. He was again called weak.
No one who said these things knew or particularly cared about Landon Donovan the person, just Landon Donovan the player. Landon Donovan the commodity. When he was proven right to step away by coming back and playing extremely well, leading the U.S. to their first Gold Cup title since 2007, he was only doing what was expected of him. Though many people failed to recognize that Donovan was right to do what he knew was best for him in spite of popular perceptions, Clint Dempsey seems to have taken it as inspiration.
"I think everybody has the right to their opinion and what they think is best for the future," he said. "Whether that's with the national team, whether that's for your career and you also have to do the same for yourself. Everybody is their own man. And it's not something I made a quick decision on. I really thought about it and I really had a lot of conversations with my mom and my dad. My brothers and my wife. I just feel that it was the right time."
"I had two more years there, but I've been in Europe for six and a half years and I just...I wanted to come home. I was starting to get that itch. Every year was more difficult to go back and I think everything just has to do with timing."
"[Seattle is] the perfect place to be to do the things you want to do on and off the field. I look forward to raising my family here. That was a big thing. Being able to have my kids raised here in the States and have some of the same experiences that I had. Like tee-ball and all that kind of stuff. So I just look forward to that and look forward to getting started. Getting on the field."
But the field comes second. It's important, but it's not everything.
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