One of them was greeted by 15,000 adoring fans -- in upstate New York, no less. The other could walk freely around Boston without a soul knowing who he was.
One was rewarded after the World Cup with a hefty endorsement deal -- and then, bizarrely, the coaching reins of her team. The other has no commercial presence in the United States at all despite being one of the best players on his team -- and maybe the best player the Americans have produced to date.
Wambach is the de facto face of the sport in a country that loves the national team when it wins but has never warmed up to the professional leagues that are trying to make a go of it. Dempsey is one of the most valuable players on a mid-table English team, setting a scoring record with the club last season. He's widely rumored to be moving on to a bigger club. And yet, despite his achievements and his instantly recognizable, hangdog face, Dempsey is virtually anonymous to American sports fans.
The reasons form a classic, "only-in-America" story, a place where the women's game gets all the love -- but little of the money -- and the men continue to struggle -- yet have anchored a solid professional league.
This is not, however, a story about the women against the men. Saying one is "better" than the other totally misses the point. Yet that point is missed so wide and high, and so often, it baffles most outside observers.
America is the only place on the planet where otherwise serious reporters will actually ask if keeper Hope Solo could play in MLS (the answer is no) and once tormented the men's national team coach by asking why Mia Hamm wasn't picked to play in World Cup qualification. America is also one of the few places that plays the sport where even the biggest names in the men's game can walk around unmolested by fans, while the women are mobbed.
This has brought up some tortured thinking. Some folks really believe that the women are playing "for all the little girls." (They aren't - this is a sport and that was a marketing slogan.) Some others believe that the men should just be given up on, ignoring the fact that without them there would be no money for the women.
And yet: USSF president Sunil Gulati said the women's national team was his organization's most valuable property during this past Women's World Cup, an illuminating statement considering that the women don't bring in anywhere near the amount of money at the gate as the men.
What the women have brought is light and heat: attention for a sport that has long suffered a crippling inferiority complex. It cannot be understated how important that is. Soccer (and by extension, the men who run it) still feels like the Hester Prynne of American sports.
It's no longer considered "commie" or "unmanly," but there's long been a feeling that the goalposts keep moving, always leaving the American game on the cusp of success and acceptance without ever actually achieving it. The failure of the men to take any of their chances has seriously affected that conversation; in contrast, the women's historic success has fed into a feeling that their squad can win big at any time.
These insecurities have also had toxic consequences. One minor case in point: This summer, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey wrote a mildly critical column about the presentation of the Women's World Cup. The reaction he got -- which he shared with me -- was vicious, in one case equating him with being a racist. Morrisey happens to enjoy watching the sport; his reaction to these responses: "Inferiority complex is right."
What this has done is created a weird, parallel world where the genuine achievements of players like Wambach and Dempsey are lost.
Wambach's team lost the World Cup to Japan -- some might argue they threw it away -- but maintained enough of an air of promise throughout that all fans remember are the gripping moments. The comeback against Brazil; the disposing of France -- forgotten are the soft goals and the loss to Sweden, and the fact that they only won three games. (They beat Brazil on the tie-breaker; that's a draw in the record books). They got to the finals, Wambach was the hero who headed them there -- and that's the storyline that stuck. A week later, tiny Rochester, NY, sold out their dilapidated stadium, with fans lining up to get a chance to wave in Wambach's direction.
Dempsey's team also made it to a final, winning four games en route. The reaction was wildly different. The Americans lost in the final to arch-rivals Mexico, which was the team of the tournament, and that's all that's remembered. The perception -- not entirely incorrect -- is that the American men are not only very average, but incapable of winning big games. The men got no hero's welcome, MLS games saw no corresponding uptick in attendance after the Gold Cup, and no one lined up to wave and cheer for Landon Donovan.
The irony is that Dempsey has probably done more to advance the careers of soccer players in America than others. Until now, the majority of American players who made it big were goalkeepers -- Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Kasey Keller; Brian McBride was the exception. Some players have shown promise (Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley) but few have shown staying power season after season. Even the pioneers had a rough time: Claudio Reyna was very solid at Glasgow Rangers, but was a disappointment in the
Premier League; Tab Ramos never played a La Liga game with Betis. And Donovan, so often held up as the best of the Americans, has only a brief period with Everton under his belt.
By showing up, putting his head down and playing through adversity, Dempsey has demonstrated that some of the cliches about American players simply aren't true. He's not brittle, not given to complaints, and seems perfectly happy to cede the spotlight to his teammates. He's adored by Fulham's fans and yet is mystifyingly the target of constant criticism from American fans.
Wambach, on the other hand, has little reach outside the States, but is beloved here. That's not her fault --there are few international opportunities for women -- and in any case, the best leagues have been in America. The first one, WUSA, was a colossal failure; her current league, the WPS, is teetering, a victim of teams closing up shop, low attendances and a society that has rarely embraced women's professional sports of any ilk. No one can say that Wambach hasn't put her head down and done the work: she's the third highest scorer in the women's national team history and has won everything at every level save a World Cup trophy.
Wambach is also made for the cameras: she's gregarious and delightful, with a wide smile and quick wit. Solo may be a gift to journalists, what with her penchant for popping off, but Wambach comes across as the leader, a driven athlete who shone best in the aftermath of what was a crushing and career-defining loss; she was gracious in defeat, proving herself to be a true sportsman.
And yet: One player will be watched by tens of millions of people around the globe on a weekly basis. The other will go back to Florida, and a team in a league that is struggling to survive. One will stay in the shadows. If this sounds like a massive, missed opportunity for the game to gain American sports fans, that's because it is. The other will do the talk shows, and when that's done, the country will go right back to ignoring her sport. If this sounds deeply unfair and patronizing, that's because it is.
In a just world, both players could be feted for what they are, not what some want them to be. But that's not how American soccer works today, to all our detriment.