Sounders pay to play in the big time

In acquiring Clint Dempsey, the Seattle ownership is putting money behind its promises.
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Clint Dempsey

In acquiring Clint Dempsey, the Seattle ownership is putting money behind its promises.

For a club that lapped its MLS competition financially from the start five years ago, the Sounders haven't played like it. Nothing captured the futility better than the final moment of the 2012 season when the team's best player, Osvaldo Alonso, stood screaming at game officials at the end of an elimination game at the soldout home park rattling with boos.

His fury after the loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy provoked a yellow card, his second of the game, so he had to sit out the first game of the 2013 season. That's a long hangover for one outburst.

Sounders fans had it worse: They had been standing and screaming for four years, and still weren't getting an MLS Cup. The Sounders continue to lead Major League Soccer in attendance, up 2.8 percent this year to more than a 40,000 average, nearly double the second-best team, the Galaxy. Yet the business success hasn't translated to the pitch.

The biggest difference between the Sounders and Galaxy was the caliber of the designated players, the stars whose salaries are free from most restraints of the MLS salary cap. That distinction vanished this week, after majority owner Joe Roth fulfilled a commitment he made in December.

At the franchise's annual end-of-year business meeting, in which fans re-elected Adrian Hanauer as general manager, Roth took over the microphone and addressed the fans.

"We are absolutely committed to winning the MLS Cup,” he said, “and if we don’t win, it’s not because we haven’t spent enough money for players. We may have picked the wrong players, but believe me, if the equivalent of Robbie Keane is out there, we’ll go get him and we’ll pay him.” Keane, the legendary Irish footballer and Galaxy star, slayed the Sounders in the playoffs.

Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, meet Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.  Good-bye, Fredy Montero and Christian Tiffert.

That same December night that he was re-elected, Hanauer made the same commitment as Roth.

“We are prepared to now spend more and more money to have the quality necessary to win an MLS Cup,” he said. “So the economic question is one we’re very comfortable with, and we’re willing to spend more money if that helps us win an MLS Cup.

“Everyone (on the team) is well aware that there is the potential that we could make big changes this off-season. Again, yes, we do have targets, and some very good ones, but these deals are always complicated.”

Few anticipated a successful pursuit of Dempsey, the top-flight American playing in the top-flight English Premiership. For a U.S. player in his prime, the captain of the national team, well-established in Europe, to come back to MLS, well, it is simply not done.

And he is returning to play home games on artificial turf that is scorned and vilified by the soccer establishment.

As international soccer expert Foghorn Leghorn is fond of saying, "That's the most unheard of thing I've ever heard of!"

But as Roth, a very successful Hollywood producer knows, money can do unheard-of things.

"They moved mountains to get me here," was how Dempsey put it Saturday night in a KING5 TV interview at halftime of the Sounders' 3-0 win over Dallas that served as his public debut as a Sounder, although he won't play until next week.

That mountain includes a four-year contract for $32 million that is the biggest base salary in MLS history, more than doubling the $3.75 million of New York's Thierry Henry. They needed to pay his English club, Tottenham Hotspur, $9 million to free a player who wasn't starting in the season's second half. The figure more than doubles the $4 million the Sounders paid a Spanish club to extract Martins in March.

Upon arrival, Martins became the highest-paid player in club history with a $1.6 million base, which was almost eight times more than the Sounders' three-time MVP, Ozzie Alonso ($210,000).  Dempsey will make five times more than Martins.

The salary arc describes the mountain to which Dempsey referred. Relative to the pay in big American sports, it is not noteworthy. Relative to American soccer, it is astonishing.

But it is what Roth and Hanauer promised. It is for now, this season. It is what the club can afford to do.

The extraordinary lengths to which the Sounders went to get Dempsey is a major benchmark in the four-plus years of effort to build Seattle into a world-class soccer club. Throughout MLS, there is private grumbling and resentment over the deal.

It was the sort of resentment that Roth expressed after the Sounders lost to the Galaxy at the Clink in November — jealousy.

By chance that evening, I was in the same pressbox elevator post-game as Roth. We chatted about the outcome, the bad officiating and his disappointment. As the doors opened on the ground floor, he encountered a member of the Galaxy ownership. After an awkward attempt at courtesy between rivals, Roth spun away and headed to the Sounders locker room.

He glanced over his shoulder and barked, with kids present, "And f--- you."

That was a weak comeback. This week was a strong comeback.

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