In December 2006, England's Fulham F.C. offered MLS a $4 million transfer payment for then-23-year-old Clint Dempsey. The transfer was the largest ever offered for an MLS player.
At 23, Dempsey was tossed a paycheck and sent overseas. In a sport facing constant barriers in his home country, Dempsey got the chance to study abroad.
Now a month from his 31st birthday, Dempsey has backed up every bit of the hype.
In six-plus seasons in the Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, Dempsey accumulated 57 EPL goals, a record for an American. He finished fourth in the voting for Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association in 2011-12. He is second on the all-time U.S. National Team goal scoring list with 36 tallies in 101 caps. He is a three-time Honda Player of the Year Award winner as best American player.
Last summer, Dempsey decided it was time to come home. For six and a half years, he walked the walk. He blazed a path for fellow Americans in Europe. He proved Americans can hold their ground with the best in the world.
Perhaps not coincidentally, back in the U.S., soccer boomed. European soccer is a fixture of American television and MLS business is improving. Support for the U.S. National Team is respectable.
Dempsey, who signed a four-year contract worth more than $5 million with the Seattle Sounders in August, is embracing the new MLS.
"There's a demand for homegrown players to be in the MLS. It shows the ambition the league has to try to get some of the best players they can and get players while they still are in their prime and have a lot of good years left," Dempsey tells ThePostGame. "The league is definitely growing and definitely improving. You're seeing more fans attending games, you're seeing more soccer stadiums being built, you're also seeing more franchises pop up."
With Landon Donovan in the league since 2005 and Michael Bradley signing an MLS contract with Toronto F.C. last month, three of the United States' most recognizable faces are playing in North America. On the eve of the World Cup, this can give American soccer fans a reason to smile. Players like Dempsey do not need to travel a cross the Atlantic Ocean to play at a high level.
The improved state of MLS was not the only factor reeling the Texan back to his home country. Although Dempsey still had one year guaranteed at Tottenham in the world's most historic league, home is where the heart is.
"Having a family, having kids, I want to be able to be closer to home and find that balance of following my dream and also being with my family," Dempsey says. "I'm happy to be back in the states in MLS, the league that gave me a chance to go pro in the first place, so I owe a lot to it. And playing in Seattle in front of 45,000 fans a game, it's a great experience and something I always wanted to do anyway. "
In three months back in MLS, Dempsey did not exactly blow the roof off the competition. He battled injuries and scored one goal in nine league games (one goal in 12 overall games). The Sounders were bounced in the first game of the knockout round and lingering calf injury kept Dempsey out of national friendlies shortly after the loss.
While still under contract in Seattle, Dempsey knew there was one place he could re-discover his groove: England.
"I had the summer off. That's when you have your break," he says. "But I went back to MLS with not many games left and had some injuries and some time off from that. I needed to keep pushing. I felt like I had too much time off and needed to keep my body on track."
On Christmas Eve, Dempsey re-signed with Fulham on a two-month loan. His future is set on a career in the United States, but for a period of time, Dempsey felt he could use some action at his old stomping grounds.
However, even returning to familiar Craven Cottage has not fully lifted Dempsey out of his funk. He has no goals in six appearances, including four league games. To make matters worst, Fulham is dead last in the EPL table with 19 points.
"It's been difficult. It's not ideal how things have gone," Dempsey says. "The way the team has been performing, we've been on a run of bad results. Hopefully, we can turn that around with the month left that I have here on loan."
If it is any consolation for American soccer fans, Dempsey is improving his health with just four months before the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Brazil. After all, Dempsey will not see Fulham through for the entire season. He will only contribute to their results for a few more weeks.
"For me, the most important thing was coming off of injury," Dempsey says. "I want to try to get back my fitness, to try to get my body right and try to help my team. I'm feeling better, feeling stronger fitness-wise and can be more productive on the field. Hopefully, with the month I have left, I can help pitch in goals and help the team."
In June, Dempsey will play in his third career World Cup, and he scored goals in his first two.
Despite all the league and moral accomplishments of his career, the World Cup brings out the best in Dempsey. It is what he says was "always his dream" when he started playing soccer.
In this particular World Cup, the United States expects to have its hands full. Starting in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the so-called "Group of Death" for this World Cup, Captain Dempsey aims to rally the Yankee troops.
Dempsey was in Kansas City for the MLS Cup when he watched the draw. After all the challenges he faced, he said he cannot let national reputations distress him.
"When I first saw it, I knew it was going to be very difficult, but at the same time I was excited because in the World Cup, you play against the best teams in the world. You don't go there to try to play the easiest ones. If you want to go far in tournament, you have to beat the good ones anyway," Dempsey says.
The Americans open the tournament against Ghana, the nation that has handed the U.S. its last two World Cup losses. Dempsey admits there is a chip on his team's shoulder and it would be nice to defeat the budding rival.
However, the broader goal for American soccer goes beyond one game.
"A benchmark will be advancing out of the group that we're in. It'll show soccer is moving in the right direction," he says.
One challenge the United States and other squads may face is the climate of Brazil. In a country that hugs the Equator, many games will take place in rather extreme heat. In its second game, the U.S. will take on Portugal in Arena de Amazônia in Manous, Amazonas.
Manous in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
Dempsey, who grew up in Texas, says those who have played in the southern portion of the United States are more prepared than other players. With that said, the game will a grind.
"It'll be really humid and hot," he says. "It helps if you figure out how you want to manage the game. You can't go too crazy. You've got to manage the ball and make the most of it because those conditions do take a lot out of you."
In 2010, South Africa featured a winter climate deep in the Southern Hemisphere. The weather will certainly be a difference from one World Cup to another.
A second difference will be the coach of the United States. In 2011, Jürgen Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley as manager of the U.S. National Soccer Team. He named Dempsey captain in spring 2013.
Klinsmann has a World Cup title, a European Championships Title and in 2004 he was on the FIFA 100 list of the "125 Greatest Living Footballers."
Dempsey does not take the experienced coach for granted.
"Jürgen played at the highest level. He's one some of the most prestigious trophies in the game," Dempsey says. "Being able to learn from him and how he addresses situation, he really gives us confidence as a national team."
In 2013 Dempsey found another role model, not in an individual, but in a team. After the U.S. qualified for the World Cup, the Seattle Seahawks invited Dempsey and national teammate and then-Sounders teammate Eddie Johnson to a practice. Dempsey says he was most impressed by the team's precision in the red zone during the practice.
Now, with the Seahawks having won the Super Bowl, Dempsey is amused at Seattle's ecstasy. He feels connected to it.
"The fact that they did so well and the city really got behind them, you're happy for the city, you're happy for those players. It was really nice that they accepted us. I've never been a part of a city where the sports really embrace each other," he says.
More importantly, Dempsey has some more inspiration for his own team:
"I'm happy for them, but at the same time, it's something we've got to do. Bring a trophy back to the city."
In the next few months, Clint Dempsey has a lot on his plate. He has three teams to play for in three different continents before next year's MLS playoffs. In four months, he will take the pitch on the international stage for the only time in four years.
"You take it one day at a time, one week at a time," he says. "You focus where you are. Right now, I'm at Fulham. I have to focus on helping the team get in the best position on the table. After that, I'll go back to MLS and look forward to helping the Sounders get as high as I can in that league. Then I'll go to the World Cup and focus on getting out of the group. You take it as it comes and keep working."
From his schedule, it is easy to see Clint Dempsey is grinding away. On March 9, he will be a year north of 30 years old, but the drive is still there. Dempsey still has business to finish in the World Cup and in club play. American soccer has taken leaps during his time as one of its stars, but the job is not finished.
Dempsey's next challenge is to strengthen American soccer in the United States while playing in the United States.
He set it up when he left seven and a half years ago. Now, he is embracing the results.
Degree Men antiperspirant and deodorant will be sending one lucky fan to Brazil on an all-expense paid trip to cheer on the United States at the World Cup in June. As part of the brand's DO:MORE campaign, Dempsey hosted a live video chat Thursday on DegreeSoccer.com.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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