When MLS started recruiting players after the 1994 World Cup, the league spent about $60 million on acquiring talent. That was a small price to pay for gaining a foothold on the U.S. sporting scene, about as cost-efficient an investment as could be made in modern day soccer.
After 11 years of play, signs point to the league someday matching that initial investment. If the Clint Dempsey transfer to Fulham FC for $4 million is approved, the MLS will have earned a total of more than $24 million in transfer fees dating back to 1997. The league is far short of the export level of top South American clubs, but the numbers indicate that MLS could be moving in the direction of a becoming a breeding ground for talent.
How the Dempsey affair plays out could indicate where the MLS is going.
First, Dempsey has to perform well enough for incentives to kick in and solidify the $4 million as MLS' most lucrative sale. Then, MLS has to continue to produce players of this caliber.
The biggest question about Dempsey is whether he is a harbinger of future talent or an exceptional case not likely to be duplicated.
The U.S. should be filled with Dempsey-type players -- hungry, physical, skillful and uninhibited -- certain to make an impact on the international stage. But the suspicion is that Dempsey is less a product of the system than someone who virtually invented himself. Dempsey's talent was only partially recognized as he grew up in Nacogdoches in East Texas, performed for club teams in Dallas, in college at Furman University and briefly with U.S. junior teams.
FC Dallas twice passed on Dempsey in the first round of the 2004 draft. Before that, Dempsey was a fringe performer on the U.S. U-20s, though coach Thomas Rongen doubtless would have found a spot for him had it been a club team. Even Bruce Arena left Dempsey on the bench for the Czech Republic game in Gelsenkirchen, Dempsey then emerging against Italy and Ghana.
There is a feeling MLS teams were reluctant to touch Dempsey in '04, since he had developed a reputation for being difficult. Dempsey is certainly a battler. But, even if Dempsey seemed on the verge of stepping over the line at times, he kept things under control until last season, when he was suspended three times -- once by the New England Revolution and twice by MLS. Yet, it was also just that attitude that gives Dempsey that edge which will launch him into a career in Europe.
Dempsey's lack of reverence for authority has enabled him to think for himself in developing a style of play. This is not to imply Dempsey is an uncontrollable rebel. When he first came into Revolution camp, Dempsey insisted on addressing his elders as "sir" and he was on his best behavior. Being respectful did not mean Dempsey would back down from any kind of a challenge on the field though. Dempsey was a man among men when he was 20 and, one suspects, some time before that.
Dempsey tempers this attitude with a sense of playfulness, and this is also something that can be perceived as anti-authoritarian. Critics of U.S. player development say things are too regimented and too structured. They argue that young players are discouraged from pickup games, the playground activities which retain an element of fun and allow creativeness to emerge. Dempsey seems to have escaped that trap, thanks to the influence of older brother Ryan and neighborhood friends who spent a lot of time working on tricks and generally enjoying the game on their own. What other MLS player pulls off moves inspired by Cuauhtemoc Blanco?
Revolution coach Steve Nicol was able to harness Dempsey's talent, keep him challenged and inspired. But Dempsey began feeling like a caged tiger after a while and simply needed to be let out into the Premiership jungle. (I still say Spain would have been better for Dempsey's technical development.) Dempsey should survive in Europe and, hopefully, set an example for others to follow. British clubs are used to looking to the U.S. for goalkeepers. If Dempsey succeeds, the Premiership is going to expect other hard-driving, technical players to be available at reasonable prices. And if the MLS is not producing more Dempseys, we are going to have to ask why not.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.