After Tottenham transfer, Dempsey can now focus on what's important
Clint Dempsey recently became the highest-salaried soccer player in U.S. history
He had the best European season ever by an American, finishing with 23 goals
There's hope he may start on Friday as the U.S. faces Jamaica in a WC qualifier
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- There's a scene at the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the remarkable TV series about a high school teacher who tries to make it as a meth kingpin, that reminds me of the recent transfer saga involving U.S. soccer star Clint Dempsey. No, it's not an exact comparison -- Dempsey isn't dealing meth; this wasn't life-or-death -- and if you don't want any spoilers you should go read another story.
But in the scene, the formerly unassuming teacher, Walter White, is on the phone with his wife, who's watching a TV news report of a bomb blast at a retirement center, one that has taken out the longstanding kingpin -- who, incidentally, wanted Walter White dead.
"What happened?" asks his wife, who gets a two-word reply.
Dempsey could have said the same thing after his high-stakes gamble paid off and he was successful in forcing a $9.5 million transfer from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur last Friday. The move came down to the last hour on the last day of the transfer window, and it was entirely possible Dempsey wouldn't win, that he'd be forced to stay at Fulham or make a lateral move to another club.
"I just remember calling my wife and my mom and almost wanting to break down in tears because it was a tough time," Dempsey says of the uncertainty. "Going into that last day and night there were still a lot of question marks. It wasn't clear-cut this was going to happen. Some other things came up and you're going through that struggle, which was not fun for anybody. It was difficult for Fulham and for me, not knowing how it's going to end. It's just about having that faith, holding onto hope that something was going to happen that both parties were going to be happy with.
"In the end that was accomplished, but the deal didn't get done until right about 9 p.m., and that was when a fee was agreed. But then you had to look at all the logistics, trying to get to Tottenham's training ground, trying to make sure all the paperwork was through, doing the [physical], signing the contract and having everything sent back before the deadline at 11. Everything was sent through at like 10:58, so you're there, but you're still like, 'Is this official yet?'"
Finally Dempsey heard: Yes, it's official. And all the stress melted. He had become the highest-salaried soccer player in U.S. history, signing a guaranteed three-year contract with a club option on a fourth season.
"It's an opportunity for me to play three more years guaranteed at such a high level and gives you an opportunity to see where you are and if you can make it," says Dempsey, who had the best European season ever by an American in 2011-12, scoring 23 goals in all competitions for Fulham. "For me, it's always been about being able to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You tried your best. You challenged yourself. And you'll be able to die a happy man in the sense of your career, knowing that you were able to see if you could do it or not.'"
Dempsey won. He made a step up to Tottenham, a team that finished fourth in the Premier League last season and is a contender to qualify for next year's Champions League. What's more, he was able to stay in London, though his family will change houses to be closer to the Spurs practice facility and the international school his daughter attends.
And now he can get to focus entirely on soccer again. Dempsey may not start for the U.S. in its World Cup qualifier against Jamaica here on Friday (8 p.m. ET, beIN Sport), not least because he hasn't played a game in nearly three months, but he has been preparing himself as though he could start. "I don't know what my chances are, but I've been working hard," he says. Upon arriving at the U.S. camp in Miami this week, Dempsey was given a VO2 test, wearing a mask and running on a treadmill, and he says U.S. trainers were satisfied with his base-level fitness.
In addition to helping the U.S. as it tries to put a stranglehold on semifinal-round qualifying for World Cup 2014, Dempsey knows that two high-level games and training in hot and humid conditions will help him hit the ground running when he returns to Spurs next week.
Will Dempsey be an immediate starter at Tottenham, or might it take a while? "That's a good question," he says. "You don't know. That's the gamble you take when you make a move to a new team. You don't know where you're going to fit in exactly, you don't know how you're going to gel. The great thing for me is being able to be back in a team environment and be able to work on match fitness."
Dempsey is a hybrid attacking player. In his first conversation with Spurs manager André Villas-Boas, he said he'd be comfortable in any position where he can get the ball on the half-turn and run at defenders. "I'm not someone who really enjoys playing with my back to the goal, like a traditional target striker," he says. "I like either being a withdrawn forward or someone who plays on the left or the right. I'm also not a traditional winger. I'm someone who kind of comes inside and tries to get in those pockets and do a lot of link-up play. You don't really see me taking a player on on the outside and getting a lot of crosses in. That's never really been my style, though it doesn't mean I can't work on those things.
"It'll be interesting to see where I'll fit in, because I don't know what his plans are in that sense. I have to show him where I'm at, obviously, and he'll see what the best fit will be. Any position that I can get into the attack and get goals is what I enjoy. I think a strength of mine is late runs into the box and being able to get on the end of things. We'll just have to wait and see."
Dempsey, who wore No. 23 at Fulham, said he chose to wear No. 2 at Tottenham after he learned other choices were unavailable, including No. 8 (his most common national team number), No. 11 (the number he wore in high school and club soccer) and No. 23 (which he first chose at Fulham because it was Michael Jordan's number).
The number 2 makes sense: It was the first number Dempsey ever wore in kindergarten, as well as in college at Furman and with the New England Revolution. He's had the nickname "Deuce" ever since Nike coined it in his first ad campaign, "Don't Tread on Me," in 2006. In fact, Dempsey says his most prized possession in his house is his No. 2 jersey from kindergarten that his parents framed and inscribed: TO OUR LITTLE MAN WHO KNEW HE COULD. LOVE, MOM AND DAD.
(True story: With the choice of wearing No. 2 or the more symbolic No. 10 as a rookie with the Revolution, Dempsey chose No. 2. "With the Revs at the time, there was talk of the No. 10 not being a lucky number," Dempsey says. "Players on the team who wore it before, things didn't work out for them. It was kind of like the Madden game curse." Curious about which players had worn the No. 10 in New England history, I asked my Twitter followers, and @Retrofuturist00 sent me this link. The not-so-illustrious list includes Beto Naveda, Edwin Gorter, Mario Gori, Mauricio Ramos, the late Câte, Alex Pineda-Chacón and Jorge Vázquez before Dempsey and Edgauras Jankauskas and Rajko Lekic after him. Some curse that is.)
Now that Dempsey has made his move to Spurs, he doesn't have the desire to publicize what went down behind the scenes with Fulham, except for one thing: "I did not refuse to play. There were some things that were said that were not true." Nor does he have any issues with Liverpool, which showed interest in him but didn't value him as highly as Fulham or Spurs did. "I wish them the best," Dempsey says. "It's a team that has a lot of history and a manager who did a great job with Swansea last season. I liked the way they played."
And what of the continued U.S. Soccer trolling by CNN host and Arsenal fan Piers Morgan? Dempsey takes the high road on the tweet Morgan sent to his 2.6 million followers: "Would serve Dempsey right if nobody buys him. Arrogant twerp."
"Everybody has a right to their own opinion," Dempsey says. "The things that matter the most to me are what my family and my friends think of me. Those are the people who are with you through the good times and bad, the people who know who you are as a person, who know what you stand for."
Last Friday night, after the final scrambling had ended and Dempsey had posed for a photograph with his new Spurs shirt, he joined his agents Lyle Yorks and James Skelland for a late celebratory dinner at a London hotel. Stressed and busy, none of them had eaten all day before that. Earlier in the evening, they had raced across London to Spurs Lodge in hopes of closing a last-second deal with a team nobody in the public sphere had thought would sign Dempsey. Now, after weeks of painful uncertainty, it was done.
"It's just nice for it to be over with and know where I'm at," Dempsey says. "It really couldn't have worked out any better. I'm blessed. I feel like God was looking over me. You get spiritual, because you don't have anything else. The situation is out of your control to a certain extent, so you try not to worry about it, but every day you're looking at your phone seeing if you got any calls, any news. You're trying to train as hard as you can so you can be the best you can be for whatever team you're going to play for."
Dempsey won. Now he can be just a soccer player again -- for Tottenham and for the U.S. national team.