Clint Dempsey spoke of returning "home" when he confirmed his temporary winter return to the English Premier League, but despite rejoining the club where he spent much of his career, he may find things lacking familiarity the second time around.
From 2007 to 2012, Dempsey played for Fulham FC, where he turned himself from an ambitious American import into a U.S. national team star and, for a period before returning to Major League Soccer last year, one of the Premiership's most influential players. He has returned to West London for a two-month loan, a move aimed at keeping him sharp for this summer's World Cup until the Seattle Sounders' MLS campaign resumes in March.
However, this is not the Fulham that Dempsey is used to seeing. The Cottagers have endured a wretched start to the Premier League season and were stuck in the treacherous relegation zone until a minor recent upturn.
Danger of the drop still looms, and the locals feel the key missing ingredients have been energy and desire, two qualities Dempsey brings with abundance. It is widely hoped, from the club's hierarchy to its fan base and playing staff, that the 30-year-old Texan can provide a necessary spark.
If he can, Dempsey's winter jaunt across the pond can turn into the kind of valuable and uplifting experience he is seeking. If not, he might start hankering for Seattle's caffeine and drizzle ahead of time.
In short, this loan move will be whatever Dempsey can make of it with his own force of will. Fortunately, there seems to be no lack of motivation on his part.
"This has always felt like my home in Europe," Dempsey told FulhamFC.com. "I want to help the team when they are not in the position they want to be in the table. I'm excited about being here and hopefully I can help out and make sure we stay in the Premier League."
Fulham's core support was not especially impressed when Dempsey sought a move away from the club in 2012 and joined Tottenham in a $9 million deal. They have forgiven him swiftly, though, chanting his name during and after a 1-1 draw with Norwich City in a rugged FA Cup clash last weekend.
Fulham CEO Alistair Mackintosh was the driving force behind the loan deal once Dempsey expressed interest in a brief PL stint. Current Stoke City and former Fulham boss Mark Hughes also tried to get him, but Dempsey's ties to his old club outweighed those to his old manager.
Fulham's predicament is far removed from the highlights of Dempsey's time at the club when it reached the 2010 Europa League final and finished in the Premiership's top 10 three times. This weekend, the side takes on bottom club Sunderland in a matchup arguably more important than the trio of mouthwatering matches against Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool that all fall within the confines of his two-month term.
The Premier League is, by its nature, a far more physical and intense league than MLS, but one of the quirks of Dempsey's deal is that it may actually provide him more time and space than he is used to.
As the highest-paid player in MLS and the focal point of Seattle's livewire attack, he attracts a swathe of attention, with many MLS defenders quickly realizing that the best way to stop him is to kick him. At Fulham, he does not have as much of a target on his back and may appreciate the additional latitude.
Such a scenario would help ahead of the World Cup. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. need Dempsey to be firing at full strength if they are to have real hopes of surviving a Group of Death that includes Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
"Going into a World Cup year you want to get to that top form and carry it forward so you get a good showing," Dempsey said.
So this is a somewhat strange Fulham, as far as Premier League observers are concerned. The Cottagers are disjointed and inconsistent and defensively unsound, and, quite possibly, they will be scrapping for their Premiership lives going into the final few months.
But also in 2007, the club looked doomed before an upstart PL rookie scored a critical winning goal against Liverpool in early May to guarantee survival. His name? Clint Dempsey.
Maybe things aren't so unfamiliar after all.
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