It started with an August 1 announcement out of left field—or out of the midfield, rather: The Seattle Sounders had renegotiated Shalrie Joseph’s designated-player contract so as to allow the team a major player acquisition. Any such annoucement would spark speculation about roster changes, but this one was different. After a couple of tweeted photographs, a pipe dream combusted into a rumor and then, miraculously, a reality, which culminated Sunday evening in the first home appearance as a Sounder for soccer legend, and current captain of the U.S. men’s national team, Clint Dempsey.
That same day, Aug. 1, one fan spotted and snapped Dempsey (who had been playing for almost a year for English club Tottenham, but was reported to be looking elsewhere) at Heathrow; a second, at 6:57 p.m., caught him in San Francisco. Knowledgeable fan site Sounder at Heart overflowed with speculation: Why is he traveling out of England, and why to America? It couldn’t possibly have any connection to the Sounders’ announcement about Joseph, could it? No, that’s ridiculous . . . isn’t it? On a radio talk show that afternoon, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid had neither confirmed nor denied, but SaH commenters scoured flight schedules from SF to Seattle.
The hashtag #dempseywatch trended wildly. On SaH, there was much to discuss. Commenters argued whether the acquisition was legal, given MLS’s arcane rules. Dempsey had been impressed by the supporter atmosphere, it was well known, when the men’s national team played in Seattle June 11. But on the other hand, since Dallas FC was in town to play the Sounders on Aug. 3, and since Dempsey grew up in Texas, he couldn’t be in Seattle to meet with them, could he? Another analyst guessed that British team Everton, in L.A. for a friendly, was Dempsey’s travel target.
But at 8:56 p.m. a third fan tweeted, “I am on UA Flight 1621 to Seattle right now. just boarded. 100% sure he is on this flight.” Excitement soared. Yet a group of fans who rushed to stake out Seatac Airport failed to spot him. (It later transpired that Dempsey had been met on the tarmac by a van and spirited away—and that the deal had been in the works since mid-July.) A hardy group at SaH—dubbed, in a nod to Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch—stayed up all night waiting for media reports from Britain.
Rumors coalesced throughout Friday (fueled by the present author, who is now embarrassed to admit that he thought he saw Dempsey downtown on Friday morning, and should have kept his mouth shut about it. But if that wasn’t him, it was someone who could make a good living as his celebrity double), and media reports came in from all sides. At 3:17 p.m., SaH’s Jeremiah Oshan tweeted “Nothing official from team, but getting multiple indications that the Dempsey reports are legit.” What had seemed preposterous 24 hours earlier, drawing derisive skepticism from other teams’ fans, was truly, unbelievably happening—as if the collective brainwaves of hundreds of giddy, obsessed supporters had simply willed fantasy into reality.
Though the Sounders didn’t make the official statement until Saturday the 3rd, that meant the unveiling could take place in public at the Dallas game; and when Dempsey unzipped his hoodie at CenturyLink to reveal a rave-green jersey, the screams were orgasmic. As it happened, Dempsey’s first home game, after away matches in Toronto and Houston, wasn’t until yesterday—but it was arguably the biggest of the year, against loathed rivals the Portland Timbers. An audience of 67,385 (the largest ever, it’s said, for a soccer match of any kind in the Northwest) were on hand for the crazily celebratory atmosphere; the dazzling 37,000-square-foot tifo (banner display), engineered by the Emerald City Supporters, that filled the entire south end of the stadium; and the Sounders’ 1-0 victory on a goal by Eddie Johnson—not the humiliation we’d hoped to dole out, but of course richly satisfying nonetheless. The win moved the team into playoff position after a season spent hovering just outside it; the Sounders are now ranked third in MLS in points per game. An MLS season that began shakily, with no win until the sixth match in the seventh week, has turned into the most thrilling one yet for Sounders fans.