Dempsey's ambition outgrows MLS

August 23, 2006
Dell'ApaBy Frank Dell'Apa
(Archive)

Charlton Athletic's reported interest in Clint Dempsey has cooled. Dempsey remains marketable in Europe, but chances are slim he'll make the move from the New England Revolution by September, the end of the transfer period.

Dempsey
WireImage / Garrett EllwoodClint Dempsey is currently serving an MLS-imposed suspension for breaking Jimmy Conrad's jaw.

There have been reports that a $1.5 million bid from Charlton were rejected by MLS. Nobody has denied the figure. But a Charlton source said Tuesday the club is not strongly pursuing Dempsey at this time, though Charlton continues to be interested in importing U.S. players.

At least one other Premiership club is interested in Dempsey, but his best bet now appears to wait for the opening of the December transfer window. If Dempsey can successfully conclude the MLS season with the Revolution -- reaching at least the Eastern Conference final and contending for the U.S. Open Cup -- his prospects will improve.

MLS is going to drive a hard bargain for any club trying to take him before his contract expires in December 2007. But some compromises are going to have to be made.

Dempsey is sincere about his desire to move overseas -- he is not using potential offers as leverage to renegotiate. Dempsey is outgrowing MLS in terms of ambition, so the league must realize it simply cannot keep him. Dempsey is eligible for the Revolution's game against the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup Wednesday, but he is serving his second suspension from league play since returning from the World Cup.

In fact, Dempsey has been suspended three times this year for physical excesses, once by the Revolution for a training camp fight and twice by MLS. A Dempsey elbow broke the jaw of Kansas City's Jimmy Conrad in an Aug. 9 match in Foxboro, but Dempsey did not receive a caution on the play. Referee Mauricio Navarro, who was not having a particularly strong game, judged that Dempsey had not struck with intent or maliciousness.

Indeed, the Dempsey elbow to Conrad probably would have been similarly adjudicated in the Premiership. At worst, Dempsey would have been cautioned; it was apparent he was acting in terms of self preservation.

But this, too, could become a problem for Dempsey and MLS. Early in the match, Dempsey appeared to have been taken down for a penalty, but no call was made. Somewhere along the way, Dempsey is either consciously or unconsciously coming to realize he is being afforded little protection in what is already a rough and tumble league.

Dempsey refuses to complain about referee calls and/or non-calls. Two years ago, Dempsey played two games with a broken jaw before the Revolution forced him to take a break, and he has often played in pain.

Again, though, Dempsey could be moving past MLS's limitations. The league still emphasizes crudeness over creativeness, and skillful players seldom receive the benefit of the doubt from referees. This makes it doubly difficult for MLS teams to settle into a flowing game, even for brief periods of time.

Dempsey thrived on the international stage and is the type of performer who would "play up" to the level of a top division club in Europe. Surrounded by better players and a more sophisticated setup, Dempsey would more rapidly reach his potential.

And this is precisely a lesson which should have been taken from the U.S. performance in the World Cup. The best players in the U.S. simply need to make the move to Europe in order for the national team to compete with the world's best. These moves would put pressure on MLS to discover and develop replacements, but that is just the exigency the league needs.

Are there other Dempseys in East Texas or New England? Does Dempsey represent a trend of young, ambitious, skillful players emerging? Or is Dempsey the exception rather than the rule?

MLS and the U.S. national team are at a crossroads. Domestic authorities assert that the country is loaded with young talent. Anyone paying attention to the scene would agree. The problem continues to be developing that talent.

Many young players aspire to play in MLS. But the most ambitious of them also aspire to make it to Europe. Dempsey is bound to make the jump and he is also bound to do so successfully. If so, it would be a good advertisement for MLS.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.