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The Dempsey Conundrum: Promotion or Status Quo?

On the eve of the much-anticipated American Civil War between Everton and Fulham, American soccer fans are relishing the chance to see three of their best players take the pitch at the same time at the highest level of competition.  Other American sports’ fans do not understand the importance of this match: Kobe plays LeBron often (usually on Christmas) and Manning and Brady seem to play every year.  However, U.S. soccer fans for years have settled on seeing their best players either square off in MLS or not face each other competitively, due to playing in different leagues.

When the players take the pitch tomorrow another interesting sidebar will be discussed, and that is why the three best American soccer players are playing in, well, this game.  To put it another way, is this the best American soccer players can do, two clubs that are mid-table at best or, in Fulham’s case, seemingly always in danger of slipping into the relegation zone?  Why isn’t this historic match-up taking place in a Manchester derby or West London derby?  For the Everton U.S. players, the answer is that the chance has already slipped by.  Tim Howard had his time at Manchester United but has really found his place with Everton, a smaller club.  Landon Donovan has gone through a similar situation, except he simply failed to catch on at Bayern Munich and is just now being seen as potentially EPL worthy.

Clint Dempsey is different.  Although not a young prospect, the Texan is hitting his peak and his peak is pretty damn good.  His goal total for 2011-2012 is up there with players who could be considered with the Ballon d’Or, trailing only Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, and Sergio Aguero.  He became the first American to notch a hat trick during an EPL match and it was his second in all competitions this year.  The man scores goals but at age 28 his peak productivity window is closing.  So, should he strike out now while his Q rating is at its highest and make a move to a larger club?  Or is Fulham the best place for him right now?

One man with a large voice in the U.S. Soccer Federation made his opinion known last week.  In the press conference after the Venezuela friendly, Jurgen Klinsmann addressed the Dempsey hat trick and made clear that he wants his players to play at the highest level (audio can be found on the Total Soccer Show podcast).  In essence, he said that he wants to see players like Dempsey play at the highest level of soccer, which is not just the EPL; it is playing for a Champions League contender or, at the very least, a Europa League contender.

Practically speaking this may be a hard task, even if Dempsey desires a move.  While I will leave the analysis of team needs in the Prem to our sister site EPL Talk, I will say that there are few opportunities for consistent playing time in the Top 6 of the EPL, due to congestion at Dempsey’s position and budgetary restrictions.  The best fits may be Tottenham or Arsenal (which the Gunners being the better fit of the two) but even those two London clubs would not potentially give Dempsey consistent playing time.  And that is the biggest negative for Dempsey if he moved to a larger club: playing time.  Right now he has established himself as a fixture in the starting XI for Fulham.  Except for injury or forced rest, he’ll play for The Cottagers.  He will play against the best clubs in England and have a chance to refine his skills at the highest league level, something that will definitely benefit him in international play.  A move would likely impede this playing time as he would not be assured a starting spot in any of the top six clubs.

However, there are two major reasons he should seek a transfer to a larger side (we’ll stick with the EPL for ease of comparison).  The first is the competition would be extremely beneficial to push himself to the next level; it’s one thing to fight off a player below you for time and it’s another to push someone like Andrei Arshavin for a starting spot or first sub off the bench position.  The ability to play with the best players in the world in the best competitions in the world will not only improve Dempsey as a player but really test him for World Cup qualifying.  This is worth the trade-off of a few starting minutes.

There is another, off-the-pitch reason to make this move and Brian Straus nails it completely in his recent article on Dempsey.  Straus quotes an exchange from a recent The Guardian “Football Weekly” podcast when discussing Dempsey’s hat trick:

“Pundits always say, ‘Oh, Clint Dempsey, I always like Clint Dempsey.’ What is it about Clint Dempsey? I think it’s that infectious spirit of, basically, he’s an American, which is quite exciting and glamorous. He’s a rapper, yep. What else we got?” one writer asked.

“He’s got a cool name, Clint Dempsey. He’s just cool. He scores great goals as well,” said another.

“Is he redneck? I asked this before and got accused of all manner — it’s a genuine question!”

While anyone who listens to the podcast knows that it has a sense of humor about itself, the undertone to the exchange is the lack of respect that American soccer players have in larger leagues.  They are at times a sideshow, primarily because in the past when they’ve played for the best clubs, they’ve failed to perform.  An American player should step up and show pundits and soccer fans how far this country has come.  Dempsey is our best shot, and he certainly could fail with a Champions League contender.  But I suspect he won’t, and we’ll never know unless he steps up and grabs the opportunity.