• Clint Dempsey joins Seattle Sounders
• New York Red Bulls are latest pacesetters in MLS marathon
• DC United's quiet overhaul begins to pay dividends
Over three days, the possibility of Clint Dempsey's return to Major League Soccer went from Twitter joke to implausible fantasy, eventually coalescing Saturday at CenturyLink Field's centerline. There, in the moments before the Sounders took on FC Dallas, the former Tottenham Hotspur attacker was unable to contain his smile, with Seattle majority owner Joe Roth's patter delaying what 39,360 fans already knew.
"I understand you're in town to check out our team," Roth told to Dempsey, the hint of a rave green collar visible beneath his grey sweatshirt. "Have you made up your mind?"
Seizing his cue, Dempsey shed his hoody, creating one of the greatest moments in Seattle franchise history - the culmination of three-plus years of envy-inducing crowds and unprecedented growth. With a reported fee of $9 million, the highest paid in MLS history, Seattle finally leveraged their economic might, bringing home a star Roth introduced as "the best American player [the U.S.] has ever produced."
The reveal ended the league's most enthralling (if abrupt) transfer saga. On Thursday, rumors of a potential Dempsey move were bolstered by a broadcaster's tweet, verifying the gossip. Later Dempsey was seen at San Francisco International Airport, arriving from London en route to Seattle. Sounders fans rushed to SEA-TAC airport hoping a glimpse of the American star would validate what once seemed so far-fetched -- a player leaving a marquee English Premier League club for MLS -- but when supporters were unable to find the U.S. captain, the "#DempseyWatch" that had taken over the MLS-devoted section of Twitter appeared to be for naught.
By Friday, his signing had been verified, and by Saturday, Seattle was capping their capture with a 3-0 win over Dallas, the occasion fuelling another designated player (Obafemi Martins) and Eddie Johnson to two goals in the game's first 22 minutes.
All the while, what was supposed to be the weekend's big story – Sounder rivals Portland and Vancouver playing at JELD-WEN Field – was relegated to a footnote. An aggressive Whitecap team that manhandled Portland's midfield grabbed a late equalizer, leaving the teams drawn 1-1, yet the only thing in the Pacific Northwest most fans cared about was what happened before kickoff in Seattle.
Whether Dempsey's the best player the U.S. has produced is a debate that may ignite now that his European career appears over (and he'll regularly be playing against Landon Donovan). Less debatable is the significance of that return. Rather than come on a free (like, say, David Beckham and Thierry Henry), Dempsey was bought at a steep price from England's fifth-placed team. While his spot in that team was in question, his 12 2012-13 all-competition goals spoke to his value.
But instead of staying, Dempsey agreed to an early return, becoming the first player MLS has meaningfully snatched back from Europe. While few teams beyond Seattle may have the economic might to pull off these moves, Dempsey's unexpected capture is still an unprecedented boost for Major League Soccer. RF
Colorado Rapids ended Saturday night in third place in the West, three points behind leaders Real Salt Lake, but crucially for them, they also ended up in possession of the Rocky Mountain Cup, after coming from behind twice to tie up the game with Real Salt Lake and take the series for the first time in seven years.
It was the first time Kyle Beckerman, a former Rapids player, had been on the losing side in the Cup. When I spoke to him in midweek at the All-Star game, he was shaking his head at the two late losses his side had endured in their last couple of games and exclaiming, "I've got to get back and help my team!" with mock urgency. His urgency at the start of this game seemed genuine enough, as he set up the ball for Ned Grabavoy to score in only the second minute.
The Rapids rallied though and Deshorn Brown powered the goal that put them back on course for the Cup (they only needed a draw), only for a Saborio penalty and a 62 minute weather delay to set them back. But then Chris Klute's cross was headed home by Jaime Castrillon to make it 2-2, and if anything the Rapids were unlucky not to win the game — Nick Rimando, another Gold Cup absentee (with Beckerman, Saborio and Tony Beltran) had to make important saves in the closing stages. The point he saved kept RSL top of the Supporters Shield running — just. But more importantly for RSL, it stopped them falling to yet another late loss after heartache against Sporting and New York in their last couple of games.
But for the first time in years, Colorado had Rocky Mountain bragging rights, and while these mini cups within the regular season are parochial affairs that don't necessarily resonate a lot beyond their timezone, this is an important marker for Oscar Pareja's project. Having finally purged the last symbolic and stylistic elements of Gary Smith's reign, Pareja risked a big off-season turnover of personnel as he accelerated his transformation of Colorado towards a more technical style — one not dissimilar in many ways, to the one their neighbors have developed and sustained so successfully. Brown, and the powerful young midfielder Dillon Powers may be a long way short of being as iconic for the club as the recently departed Pablo Mastroeni, but the present day collection of players have done something Mastroeni et al hadn't been able to do for seven years (a lifetime in MLS). This will give them belief. And they're nicely set for the run in. We could yet see these two contesting the West en route to another, more important trophy. GP
We'll not call the New York Red Bulls frontrunners exactly. Unlike last year when San Jose began winning early and rarely let up en route to winning the Supporters Shield, this year has been more of a closely meshed pack keeping pace with one another, as if in a 10,000m race, with leaders falling in and out of the lead, without particularly losing touch even in their poor spells. New York happen to find themselves at the front of the pack right now, tucked in behind RSL on goals scored, on the back of some deadly counter-attacking against Sporting Kansas City. But whether that's the start of a post All-Star week kick for home, or if they're just the latest beneficiaries of this year's pattern of jostling is hard to say.
In fairness, despite being outshot handily by Sporting KC, New York did score three well-finished goals that will do a lot to rid the hold their Eastern rivals have had over them in recent versions of this fixture (New York needed an own goal to get on the scoresheet in their last five encounters with SKC), and they can now point to scoring four, four and three in the games against Shield rivals Montreal, RSL and now Sporting in three of their last four games, so they've hardly taken the easy route to the summit.
But in the context of the season, we've seen Dallas and Montreal head out in front early, only to slide alarmingly over the last couple of months. We've seen RSL glide to the top of the standings, only to be hauled back in during Gold Cup absences, and now, as much as we've seen New York ascend alongside Salt Lake, we've also seen Sporting make their own run to the top, only to now stall with two successive defeats. Yes, New York beat them, and yes, this was the vital road win against a big rival that was needed for the Red Bulls' recent eye-catching home wins to acquire the air of meaningful statements. But the fact of Sporting dropping back, in the manner of every other "frontrunner" so far, may be the more salient pattern. Certain teams such as Houston Dynamo are known for tuning themselves slowly through the year to make sure they ease into the playoffs in form (and they picked up a nice 3-1 victory over Columbus at the weekend), but this year, they are just one of many teams jogging round the track waiting for the sprint for home. GP
Three goals. A third win of the season. What is happening in D.C.? This wasn't the team we've come to pity, one that entered Sunday's visit from Montréal with 10 points in 21 games. Saturday's was a decisive, capable group, one that took an early lead and responded to the Impact's attempted comeback with two second half signs of resilience. Where did this 3-1 win come from?
It wasn't coming from the slumbering talents that fueled United's 2012. Instead, three new faces occupied Saturday's scoresheet. An ill-hit bouncer from Luis Silva gave D.C. their 19th minute lead. After Jed Brovsky equalized in the second half, Conor Doyle touched home a James Riley cross, while stoppage time insurance from Jared Jeffrey capped United's most impressive result of the season. None of the players, all 24 or younger, were on the team at the beginning of July.
It's tempting to call Silva, now with three goals in as many games for United, a revelation, but few outside Toronto are surprised to see this type of hot streak from last year's fourth overall pick. The attacking midfielder's production is the latest, subtle embarrassment for TFC, perhaps the biggest blunder since former D.C. executive Kevin Payne moved north last November. As Toronto sit on 19 goals scored through 21 games, the 24-year-old now leads United's goalscoring.
Jeffrey's acquisition was less fortune than a function of United's woes, the team picking him up in a July 3 waiver draft, yet like Silva, the U.S. U-level standout carries an aura of potential. Just 23, Jeffrey returned to the States having never broken into Mainz's first team during his three years in Germany. Yet in two games for Ben Olsen, Jeffrey has shown the potential to partner Perry Kitchen in United's midfield. Is he better than John Thorrington right now? It's difficult to tell, but he is 10 years younger.
Like Jeffrey, Doyle is a former Dallas Texan who didn't find his success overseas, but in two appearances since being loaned from Derby on July 18, the 21-year-old has displayed the type of polish you'd expect from a player who moved abroad at 18. Though he never scored a goal in 23 appearances with the Rams, the time spent training in the East Midlands is evident, his decisive run and deft touch proving responsible for Saturday's winning goal.
Montreal deserves some credit for Saturday's result, but D.C.'s new faces represent a light at the end of the tunnel. It's far too late for United to think of the post-season, but still alive in U.S. Open Cup, United can still salvage something from this season. RF
Philadelphia's Jack McInerney acknowledged his frustration after Saturday's 2-1 loss to Chicago: the 20-year-old's near two-month dry spell part of what's become a frustrating summer. On June 1, after 14 games, McInerney was tied for the league lead in goals (10). Since, the Union striker has endured a disappointing run with the U.S. national team, belated acknowledgement from the All-Star team, and a somewhat predictable regression. His year has inverted.
Contrast that with the trajectory of another of the season's early stars: Mike Magee. Chicago's would-be savior came through again on Saturday, his 75th minute finish into the top of Zac MacMath's net giving the Fire a crucial three points:
Magee's six goals in 10 games for the Galaxy had many questioning whether LA was giving too much to get Robbie Rogers. Now the trade looks even worse. In 10 games since moving back to his hometown, Magee has scored eight times, his winner at PPL Park moving him to the top of the league's scoring charts – a standing that garners obligatory Most Valuable Player consideration.
It's the type of renown that wouldn't have been possible in Los Angeles. As discussion of his hot start hinted, Magee was never going to eclipse the shadows of the Galaxy's other stars: Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. His successes would always be team-fueled opportunism. In Chicago, however, he's had to serve as instigator as often as finisher, something few saw in his arsenal when he arrived at Toyota Park. He's carved out a success of his own.
In that way, Magee has shed his bridesmaid's perception, a reputation that may soon attach itself to McInerney. When called up by Jurgen Klinsmann, "Jack Mac" couldn't wrestle playing time away from Chris Wondolowski, a player who embodies that netherworld between Major League Soccer significance and national team relevance. As his club season has progressed, it's become clear that the key to Philadelphia's success is less McInerney's poaching than Conor Casey's role as John Hackworth's focal point.
In that way, McInerney is playing out the "Chicharito" Hernández comparisons that were prevalent this spring. Just as Hernández's hot start at Manchester United has regressed into a more modest level of production, McInerney's failed to fulfill the hype. But when talking about a 20-year-old – somebody naturally susceptible to inconsistencies – the hype is often more of an issue than a player's varying performance. RF