This past summer, Dempsey moved from Tottenham back to Major League Soccer after a successful seven-year run in England.
But has the American goal scorer underachieved on his potential?
The First Run with Fulham
In December 2006, Fulham FC paid MLS a then-record $4 million for the rights to Dempsey. Craven Cottage seemed like a perfect destination for the then-New England Revolution attacker as fellow Yanks Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra had already made their home there and at a time when few European clubs were willing to take a chance on American players.
Dempsey got off to a bit of a slow start in his inaugural campaign, scoring only one goal, but seeing that it was the goal that essentially saved Fulham from relegation—the lone strike in a 1-0 win over Liverpool—his first season has to be considered a success.
By the next season, Dempsey became a regular fixture in Fulham’s starting XI and kept it that way for the next five seasons, scoring 60 goals—50 of which came in Premier League play. In his final season at Fulham, the 2011-12 campaign, Dempsey finished fourth in the EPL in scoring and notched an impressive 23 goals in all competitions.
With Fulham, Dempsey certainly achieved his potential.
The Move to Tottenham
In the summer of 2012, with one year left on his Fulham contract, rumors began to swirl that Dempsey wanted out of Fulham. He even stated, as per The Daily Mail, “it’s no secret that I would like to play Champions League one day in my career.”
As the summer months dragged on, however, no official move was made. Dempsey was linked with a number of clubs, most notably Liverpool—who later apologized to Fulham for “tapping up” Dempsey.
As the transfer window in late August was coming to a close, Dempsey’s relationship with Fulham and Martin Jol crumbled. Dempsey was left out of a pre-season trip to Switzerland and was even fined for refusing to play against Norwich.
Eventually, Tottenham Hotspur, under new manager Andre Villas-Boas, came through on deadline day to make a move for the American. With his new club in the 2012-13 campaign, Dempsey was in and out of Tottenham’s starting XI, getting 22 starts for Spurs in EPL action.
He finished the season with a respectable 12 goals, including game-tying and game-winning efforts in Tottenham’s two league matches against Manchester United. Dempsey’s 12 goals in all competitions and seven league goals made him Spurs' third top scorer in each category behind Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe.
This summer, Villas-Boas went on a spending spree, bringing in players like Roberto Soldado, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen. In total, Tottenham spent almost £100 million on attacking players. With players like Aaron Lennon, Emmanuel Adebayor, Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson already on the roster, the writing was on the wall—it was time for Dempsey to leave White Hart Lane.
Considering all of the factors involved—almost no preseason due to his summer transfer saga, a new manager in Andre Villas-Boas, being shifted in and out of the lineup and a team strategy that at most times was simply “get the ball to Bale”—finishing the season as Spur's third-highest scorer has to be considered a success.
When he made his move home to MLS, the prospect of seeing Dempsey play in the home league was exciting for American fans but there was a lingering feeling that he had unfinished business in Europe. He had never played in the Champions League and his goal-scoring accomplishments were downplayed by many fans outside the United States. American fans still didn’t have the globally recognized world-class player they had been yearning for.
However, it’s difficult to criticize Dempsey’s decision to move home. He was obviously considered surplus to requirements at Tottenham and at 30 years old, nearing the end of his prime playing days.
The move to Seattle virtually guaranteed him playing time—especially important in a World Cup year—secured his families’ future with a salary believed to be worth $8 million per year and made sure his wife and children didn’t have to make another European move with the difficulties of finding a new home, school and potentially having to learn a new language.
On the field, however, it is difficult to argue the move to Seattle has been a success. Dempsey played 12 games with the Sounders this season—about a third of a season—but was only able to tally one goal. The Sounders were also unceremoniously dumped out of the MLS playoffs by arch-rival Portland with Dempsey struggling to impact either leg of the tie.
There are, of course, excuses to be made. Dempsey certainly struggled to find his form, in part, due to playing no games for nearly two months before the move was made. He also struggled through some minor injuries, came into a divided locker room and joined a team whose form was up and down all season long. Finally, Dempsey should be given at least a full season with the team before judgments are handed down.
Despite Dempsey’s struggles in Seattle, it is unfair to say that he hasn’t achieved his potential. He had six strong seasons with Fulham in what most would argue is the most competitive league in the world. He had an above-average season in his one year at Tottenham for a team that finished fifth in the EPL and made it to the quarterfinals of the Europa League. A bad third of a season in MLS doesn’t wipe those accomplishments out.
Could Dempsey have done more in Europe—sure. Maybe he could have forced through a move to a bigger club earlier in his career, but even coming off a 23-goal season he had to wait for a deadline-day transfer from a last-minute suitor. With Tottenham, Dempsey and the team could have qualified for the Champions League with one more win last season, but that doesn't mean he would have stayed with the team to enjoy those games. And as this summer's transfer activity proved, Spurs likely looked at Dempsey as only a short-term player.
In the end, Dempsey did the best he could have with the opportunities presented to him. Now likely heading back to Fulham, he will once again have the chance to prove himself against the world’s best.
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