Age of the Deuce

The usual line on Clint Dempsey is that he’s underappreciated in his home country – that, in the United States, it’s Clint DempseyLandon Donovan, not Dempsey, who symbolizes a sport many Americans don’t take very seriously. There’s certainly something to that. Donovan’s on-and-off relationship with reality TV star Bianca Kajlich cemented his place in the wider world of American pop culture; Dempsey is an “avid fisherman.” Donovan feuded with David Beckham, then made up with him, then won a couple of trophies; during his last year at Fulham, Dempsey meshed well with Belgian midfielder Moussa Dembele.

In England, it’s another story entirely. Dempsey, regarded as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous attackers, regularly scores goals for Tottenham Hotspur. By contrast, Donovan’s forays into European football have rarely convinced – he performed well during his first loan spell at Everton, but Major League Soccer’s ridiculous transfer rules precluded a permanent move, and Tim Howard is way more fun.

More interesting than parsing the minutiae of Dempsey and Donovan’s respective careers, or trying endlessly to determine whether the two players form the United States’ very own Lampard-Gerrard conundrum, is figuring out why fans and journalists insist on preferring one player over the other. Player comparisons are, of course, a standard part of football analysis – just as fundamental to an amateur sports blogger’s existence as microwavable meals and the childhood bedroom that mom and dad carefully preserved. But the truth here runs much deeper: Dempsey and Donovan represent rival notions of the Way We Ought To Promote American Soccer[1]. Donovan is a made-for-TV celebrity who doesn’t want to leave LA because he’s “passionate” about helping Major League Soccer “grow”; he’s getting people to watch MLS! Dempsey is an ambitious hipster who plays high-level football in London and whose family is boringly stable; he’s introducing American soccer to a European audience! People were always going to choose sides.

At the moment, Donovan’s on some kind of extended sabbatical: he was recently photographed relaxing on a Cambodian island. He’s set to return to MLS action in a few weeks, but it’s unclear whether he’s interested in advancing what’s left of his once promising professional football career. With long-time United States captain Carlos Bocanegra adrift in the Spanish second division (and therefore not in a position to contribute anything beyond reassuring monosyllables to a team that can’t afford to waste roster spots on 33-year-old center backs), Dempsey skippered the US against Costa Rica and Mexico. The captaincy is mostly symbolic, and, as Dempsey surely knows, in England, it exists solely as a mechanism for John Terry controversy. But the fact that Klinsmann, who has encouraged American players to move abroad, chose Dempsey as captain, and that the only other candidate was AS Roma’s Michael Bradley, is indicative of a broader change in American soccer. These days, the best American players play in Europe[2]. Donovan is in an ever-shrinking minority, and for that he has Dempsey to thank.

[1] That an American player’s one purpose in life should be to “promote American soccer” is obviously ludicrous. But that’s the way most fans see things.

[2] Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Dempsey, Bradley, all the German-based players, etc. Klinsmann picks plenty of MLS-ers — and I doubt he has the balls to drop Donovan — but the core of his team plays in Europe.

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