Clint Dempsey Leaves Behind Stellar Resume To Join MLS

Clint Dempsey has returned to Major League Soccer, playing his first game for his new home team the Seattle Sounders over the weekend. Dempsey was very successful playing in the English Premier League — and is not worried that his skill will fall off playing in the U.S.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last night, the Seattle Sounders defeated arch-rival Portland, one-to-nothing, or since this is soccer, we say one-nil. This was the home debut of Seattle's Clint Dempsey, one of the best American soccer players in the game. Dempsey had been playing in the English Premier League, arguably the best league in the world. And he was very successful. So why come back to the MLS, Major League Soccer?

Well, NPR's Mike Pesca asked Dempsey that question and got his outlook for next year's World Cup.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Before what was just about the largest crowd in MLS history, against their fiercest rivals, the Portland Timbers, and backed by their noisiest partisans the Emerald City Supporters, the...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMERALD CITY SUPPORTERS")

CROWD: (Singing) Seattle Sounders...

PESCA: ...lived up to their name, their potential and their colors, specifically a shade called rave green. This was the atmosphere that drew Clint Dempsey to town.

CLINT DEMPSEY: It's like you get the European experience living in the States.

PESCA: And part of the European experience is big money for soccer. The Sounders, owned by a group that includes Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Drew Carey, thought the price of $32 million over four years was right to pay Dempsey for his services. That's on top of the $9 million Dempsey's former club, Totenham, of the English Premier League, was paid s in a transfer fee to let the attacking midfielder out of his contract and back to the league where he won rookie of the year honors in 2004.

Dempsey was consistently a top scorer in the Premier League. In fact, he was the first American to score 50 goals in his Premier League career. He left behind a stellar resume but he also left behind frustration over managerial decisions and the style of play there.

DEMPSEY: There was like more pressure on you in Europe to take less touches and just to not use the ball. I feel like it kind of limited your creativity, you know, when I was playing over there. And I'm looking forward to getting back with more of the style that I fell in love with.

PESCA: And so, Seattle, which plays in the Seahawks Stadium and already leads the league in attendance, removed the tarps that blocked off the upper decks and expanded capacity to close to 70,000. Dempsey, having played two games on the road, was making his home debut.

At Number 2, Clint...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PESCA: Dempsey was the name on the back of the jersey and Sounders was on the front. Actually, Xbox is on the front. Major League Soccer teams prominently feature sponsors on their jerseys, but so does the rest of the world.

It was clear that Dempsey's debut was another claim that the M in MLS is becoming more apt than aspiration. But for fans of U.S. soccer not clad in rave green, but old fashioned red, white and blue, there's been some grumbling. Isn't it better to have top Americans play in Europe, showing the world what the Yanks can offer, facing off against world class competition in preparation for the World Cup?

Two weeks ago, Dempsey came through New York City on a media tour. That's when I asked him if the Clint Dempsey, of the 2014 World Cup, would be a better player if he stayed in Europe facing truly elite competition.

DEMPSEY: I think it is important to play against the best players possible. And you need to push yourself and you need to experience what's that like. But at the same time, you can find yourself on a team and you're not really playing good soccer at all, or you could be on a big team and you could not be playing at all. So is your confidence going to be good? Is your sharpness going to be good, so if you're called up to the national team; you know, just because you're on a big team are you really going to perform then? You know, is it better to be where you're playing consistently, playing the style you love and really enjoying your soccer?

PESCA: Major League Soccer is really enjoying him these days. Though Dempsey has yet to score in his three games, the Sounders have won two of them and positioned themselves to make the playoffs when the regular season ends in October. He and his new teammates are getting to know each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMERALD CITY SUPPORTERS")

CROWD: (Singing) Seattle Sounders...

PESCA: And thousands of Seattleites are discovering they bleed rave green and getting used to their city's status as U.S. soccer central.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMERALD CITY SUPPORTERS")

CROWD: (Singing) Seattle Sounders, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

CROWD: (Singing) Here we go. Here we go...

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