In truth, Clint Dempsey looked a tad glum walking in and holding aloft his new Seattle Sounders jersey for his introductory press conference on Monday. He was probably tired. From the whirlwind that preceded his astonishing transfer from Tottenham Hotspur , where he was playing regularly and ever on the cusp of fulfilling his UEFA Champions League dream. From all the speculation about where he'd go, if he left Spurs. From all the maneuvering and machinations to get a monster contract like his squared away with the Byzantine MLS rules.
Or perhaps, dare one say it, he was hit with the realization that his time at the very top of the game was up. Hard to say. Those big, saucer-sized eyes have never revealed much about what's happening behind them. Off the field, Dempsey is about as even-keeled a man as you'll ever meet.
And Deuce from Nacogdoches would cop to no such feelings, of course. Instead, he went the David Beckham route, saying he'd returned primarily for the good of the game here. "I wanted to come back in my prime - and not when I was past it - to help grow this league," he said. Dempsey's words cracked, he was losing his voice. There had clearly been lots to talk about of late.
MLS was the league that had given him his chance, he said, and what an opportunity he now had to repay the favor. But MLS was also the league that had exploited him before selling him off to Fulham six years ago, artificially keeping his salary at a fraction of his market value by barring him and his peers from becoming free agents. This fact had supposedly never been lost on Dempsey, who rose to the pros from a trailer park home and knew well the value of the money he was being deprived of. But never mind all that, because it gets in the way of the narrative the principals have chosen to impose on all this.
Dempsey wanted to come, and the Sounders and Major League Soccer were desperate to have him. So much so that the league picked up his large - especially for a 30-year-old who wasn't an automatic starter - $9 million transfer fee, which it apparently isn't in the habit of doing. The Sounders, for their part, will pay him somewhere between $6.86 million and $8 million for the next three and a half years. How much exactly depends on which report you go by, and whether you count base or guaranteed salary.
Whatever. A lot of money. More than anybody in league history has ever made.
MLS's reasoning is unimpeachable. Globally, Dempsey has been the most recognizable American player for some time now, eclipsing Landon Donovan the moment he started scoring Premier League goals regularly. He is indeed in his prime, as good as he ever was. And the World Cup is less than a year away. With Donovan's contract up in the winter, the league's marketing future is assured.
But Dempsey's own motives, whatever he says publicly, would appear to be personal more than careerist. That's his prerogative, of course. It's his life, not ours. He was offered a whopping salary - quite possibly a good bit more than he could have made through his 33rd birthday in Europe - and the chance to bring his family home. Dempsey spoke, more excitedly than about anything else, of the opportunities to go fishing. About living in the U.S. again and raising his kids here, watching them play tee-ball.
But what of that roaring fire that was his ambition? The ache to be the best he could push himself to be that propelled him from soccer's Siberia to the very top?
In the end, Dempsey is a family man before all else. That's been plain to see in observing him in recent years. He had a chance to take care of his. And no man can be reproached that decision.
This notion is amplified by his somewhat surprising confession that he never ran his transfer by his national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has been Dempsey's chief cheerleader and pressuring parent in one. He pushed his star hard to scrape all that his career held out of it. "I haven't had the opportunity to really sit down and talk to him about everything that's going on," Dempsey confessed. "I've been busy with my family and really thinking about the decision and trying to make the best decision possible for us."
Us. Not me. Not the U.S. national team. Us.
He assured everyone that he wouldn't be letting up or slowing down or any other cliche. That he may have given up on his ultimate goal of playing in the Champions League - "something I did have to think about" - but that MLS had proven itself a viable place to sustain an international career.
He said what he was supposed to say.
Still, Dempsey made a decision for the good of his family and himself. And so long as we don't pretend that it wasn't, that's quite alright.