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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, August 3, 2013

He's back: What Clint Dempsey's return means for MLS

To say that news of Clint Dempsey’s return to Major League Soccer Friday hit the American soccer world like a ton of bricks is not an exaggeration. What went from fun in the form of the hashtag #DempseyWatch Thursday night got very real Friday as the various stages leading to the consummation of his deal with Seattle came to light, little by little.

Whether or not this is the type of game-changing acquisition for MLS as say David Beckham or even Thierry Henry is open to interpretation. But here are four things I know for sure about the Dempsey scenario.

You can bet the ramifications of Clint Dempsey's move to
Seattle Sounders will resonate throughout MLS. (AP)

- This is a big deal. I’m not just talking about the rumored $9 million transfer fee paid to Tottenham Hotspur for his services or the reported salary of $32 million over four years for the 30-year-old Texan. Dempsey is a name recognizable to even the casual soccer fans in the states, those for whom Dempsey’s time with the New England Revolution which culminated in 2006 seems ancient history. He’s the nation’s second-leading scorer all time and he’s taken over as the captain of the team while the Stars and Stripes embarked on a historic winning streak. Dempsey is hardly unambitious: He’s been given the financial and practical incentive to ditch the dreams of playing in the UEFA Champions League that he’s been so vocal about to come back home. It’s not the tale of aging Americans limping back to the shores of America. Dempsey was the third-leading scorer (seven goals) on the fifth-best team in the world’s best league. He’s reached double digits in scoring several time in his previous stint for Fulham. He would’ve been handsomely paid for his services as the feature striker in a bevy of mid-table English squads. But it’s more financially viable and advantageous for his national-team prospects for him to be in the U.S. That says a lot about U.S.

- MLS has built a house of cards when it comes to rules governing players like Dempsey, with haphazard additions made whenever they seem convenient. The long-and-short of the process (or try to decipher this statement released by MLS in the wake of the Dempsey controversy): Players come to MLS either by the SuperDraft, as Designated Players or via “discovery”, either as home-grown players, young DPs, etc. (Read: Players no one else wants.) Other players go through the allocation process, which involves a draft based on clubs’ performances and hierarchy in which is one of the myriad tradable commodities in the MLS marketplace. Dempsey, as a DP, does not have to go through the allocation process – where it should be noted that Seattle’s rival Portland would’ve had first crack to sign or get something of value for the right to select Dempsey. The allocation process makes sense for a nascent league in which individual teams don’t have the purchasing power to be competitive in the world market, allowing players to sign with MLS and have the league fairly allocate those players. But the financial playing field is tilted, and the rules need to be accommodated – or at least brought into some type of clarity and consistency – before the league has a bevy of disenchanted fan bases on their hands.

- Dempsey’s contract, if it’s correct, brings to bear another growing problem for a growing MLS. Dempsey is due to make $8 million dollars per year, if reports are to be believed, only a very small fraction of which will count against the Sounders’ salary cap due to the designated player rule. That salary figure for the 30-year-old is equivalent to almost three Philadelphia Union teams. TEAMS. A player like Antoine Hoppenot, for instance, makes $48,400 per year. That means Dempsey makes roughly 165 times what Hoppenot makes (which should put him on pace to score 495 goals next year, give or take). That $48K that Hoppenot makes in a year, Dempsey makes in about 53 hours on the job. By that reckoning, using say Major League Baseball’s minimum salary of $480,000, the top player there would make about $79,200,000 … per year. That kind of income inequality may work for the short term while the league is in its growth phase. But for competitive balance purposes league-wide, it’s not a sustainable long-term feature.

- The times, they are a changing. And that’s uncomfortable. Part of the shock wrought by a move that many (including U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann) understandably saw as a step backward is that the perceptions of MLS are changing – at least among the playing community. The days of U.S. players with no ties to MLS are dwindling; next in the sites of the league’s development is the notion that players must test themselves overseas. For many fans (I’ll include myself here) there was something alluring about this. What county a player made it in, what new team he was with, what new style, testing himself alongside Europe’s best. That was the paradigm for many years, for reasons both competitive and financial as they sought a stable life in soccer. For a player like Dempsey to eschew a prominent place on a notable team in the world's consensus best league (this isn’t the Swedish second division here) for comparable money to head home says something about MLS. But it also says that players in the U.S. pipeline have a viable option to get the soccer time they need close to home.

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