When Clint Dempsey walked out to the middle of the pitch at CenturyLink Field on Saturday to be introduced to the crowd prior to Seattle’s 3-0 win over FC Dallas, he looked around the stadium, engulfing himself in the deafening ovation.
“It felt like it was a movie,” he said on Monday at his introductory press conference.
Standing on the field next to Sounders FC Majority Owner and Hollywood Producer Joe Roth with nearly 40,000 fans applauding his arrival, Dempsey was far from the start of his movie in that moment, though.
As he boarded a flight at London’s Heathrow Airport on Thursday, it knocked over the first domino in a long stream that ended with a group of Sounders FC supporters waiting at the Sea-Tac Airport, staking out the baggage claims and exits to greet the club’s newest player. They tracked two flights from San Francisco, where he went through customs before boarding a connecting flight.
However, Sounders FC had other plans, whisking him away in a van that picked him up on the tarmac at Sea-Tac Airport. All in the effort to keep his arrival a surprise to the fans on Saturday night.
While reports surfaced that he had signed with Sounders FC by Friday afternoon, it didn’t diminish the moment on Saturday as he was unveiled as the club’s newest Designated Player and one of the most impactful signings in Major League Soccer’s young history.
“I think it’s awesome that people really care that much about the sport in the states,” Dempsey said. “I’ve never felt so welcome and so at home right off the jump. I’m really looking forward to getting on the field and paying back the fans, paying back the ownership and paying back the league for their faith in me and make sure that I show them that it was a good investment.”
With Dempsey, the U.S. National Team captain and a seven-year veteran of the English Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham, comes heightened expectations in Seattle. Already a high-pressure environment with league-record attendance marks and an accomplished history that includes four straight MLS Cup Playoffs appearances and three consecutive U.S. Open Cup titles.
Dempsey holds the same expectations for himself and, at 30 years old and preparing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, that’s one reason he came back to MLS.
“I wanted to be able to come back when I’m in my prime and not when I’m past it to help continue the growth of this league and of this club,” he said. “The league and the Seattle Sounders organization has shown a great commitment in making that happen. They moved mountains.”
Dempsey’s move is an unprecedented one.
The 2011 and 2012 U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year, Dempsey had opportunities to play in top leagues abroad, but chose instead to come to MLS to help raise the banner of the league and of U.S. Soccer while he still has plenty of fuel in the tank.
“I want to come and make an impact. I want to win things and I’m still going to work as hard as ever to make sure that my game is at the highest level possible and I’m doing everything I can to help the team win,” he said.
For Head Coach Sigi Schmid, Dempsey may bring high expectations, but he also brings an injection of determination, attacking prowess and leadership to a team that is looking to bridge the gap between road struggles and home dominance.
Doing so would convert Seattle from a team that is among the top tier in the league to a standard-setter. And while Dempsey’s place in the team will be determined as he plays more games and develops cohesion with his new teammates, the feeling about the move in the locker room elevates the team already.
Dempsey will begin training with the team on Tuesday and is expected to make his first appearance on Saturday against Toronto FC. Although he already played two preseason matches with Tottenham before coming to Seattle, it is still unclear if he will be available to start and for how long Schmid will play him as he integrates with his new teammates.
“When you add a quality player, it makes you that much better as a team. Where exactly and how we’re going to play – that’s something that we’re going to work out in the next few days on the training ground and in the next three or four games as people get to understand each other and understand their roles and how their roles maybe change a little bit,” Schmid said. “I can’t make those kinds of predictions or promises, but I can promise you this – we’re going to give it a go this year and put ourselves in the position to win it.”
In the movie of Dempsey’s life, the tale doesn’t end with him wearing jeans and a jersey and raising a scarf for fans as an introduction to his new club. In his vision, it ends with him lifting MLS Cup, instead.
“I’m excited to come and play in Seattle in front of some of the best fans in the world,” he said. “The goal here is to win an MLS Cup and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”