The imagined rivalry

This is it. It is the American soccer equivalent of Magic vs Bird, Ali vs Frazier, Agassi vs Sampras, Lemieux vs Gretzky…or is it?

This is the first time, in my memory, that the two best –possibly greatest ever– American outfield players have faced off in, perhaps, the greatest league in the world. Yes, it is not technically a league match, but this is the first time that the two best Americans are meeting up in England, while playing for English Premier clubs.

Dempsey or Donovan has become the defining American soccer argument of the last few years. Has Donovan overstayed his welcome in MLS? Will Dempsey ever get the respect he deserves from the American sports media? Brad Friedel brought the argument to a head a few months back, and people splintered off to either agree or disagree with his comments.  Since then several other former USMNT players have weighed in, but in all honesty, there does not seem to be any animosity between the players.  This is not Harkes and Wynalda.  It is two men in their prime, changing the attitude people have abroad about American footballers.  And that, in and of itself, does not a rivalry make.

So why does everyone want to make these two players out to be mortal enemies, engulfed in a battle for the soul of US soccer? Perhaps it is because they have been building up their resumes in vastly different ways over the last few years.  Donovan in MLS and in the World Cup.  Dempsey in the EPL and in the Gold Cup.  There is no doubt that Dempsey’s EPL numbers probably mean more to most football followers than Donovan’s MLS statistics do.  Just as Donovan’s World Cup heroics probably mean more to casual fans than Dempsey’s Gold Cup goals.  But unlike some footballing matches we finally get to see Dempsey and Donovan played out live.  Yes, for the first time since May 5, 2006 Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will meet in a meaningful competition (for the record the Revolution demolished Galaxy 4-0 in that match), and we will get to see this live non-rivalry come to a head.

It is the matchup that US fans have been salivating for over the last few years.  It is probably a bigger matchup to many USMNT supporters than the Yanks vs El Tri.  People have been lining up statistics for days.  Donovan staying in MLS, but winning Cups, MVPs, Golden Boots.  Dempsey becoming the all-time American goals leader in the biggest stage on Earth, but never getting into Champions League.  Still, this match will end up proving very little in the standing of Donovan as number 1a and Dempsey as number 1b (or vice versa) to most people.  The media will not suddenly have McDonald’s commercials featuring the two doing trick shots for a Big Mac Value Meal (though that would be awesome).

Truly, this game speaks to fans need for individual rivalries, even when one is really nonexistent.  We love matching things up, be they movies, music, sports figures, bosses, teachers, or toothbrushes.  This is better than that, or that is better than this is what we fiend to do with everything.

So while Brad Friedel and Brian McBride and Eric Wynalda have all weighed in on the argument, as have countless bloggers and analysts, Dempsey and Donovan never seem to even recognize the debate exists.  If they do, then they duck the questions about who is better.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard either one ever really make reference to the fact that the other is oft time labeled his rival for greatest US outfield player ever.

Their silence only further drives USMNT supporters crazy.  They want one to make the claim that he is the greatest. We want Dempsey to say Donovan took the easy route, or we want Donovan to say he could be just as good as Dempsey in the EPL.  But neither of them will do this.  This is why this match is all the more exciting to them.

Dempsey vs Donovan is just the first time we can realistically have this debate using outfield players.  The MLS website has spent the week building up this rivalry to seem like it has the vitriol of Foreman and Ali, when in actuality it is far less than that.  In fact, this game is less about this “rivalry”, and more to the growth of the game in America.

While I scoured ESPN’s SportsCenter for mention of the game, which I was saddened to see was not covered, I do take solace in the fact that Fox Soccer went out of their way to air the game live in America. This, after all, is an FA Cup match. It is not a top of the table clash or a relegation battle.  It is not even an FA Cup Final. There is no American footballing equivalent for this happening, because this is the first time we have had players big enough, famous enough, and good enough to capture the attention of even the casual fans.

Dempsey or Donovan? Donovan or Dempsey? Deuce or Landycakes? Landon or Clint? Does it really matter? Sure it is nice to see them face off in a meaningful game outside of America, but no matter the outcome –unless one of the two really poops the bed– the defenders will still defend their guy and the detractors will still detract from the other.  The truth is the two will probably rarely face off against one another in the match.  But when, or if, they do, American’s will be breaking down every move like it was the most important thing that has ever happened in the footballing universe.

There is no rivalry here, except for the one USMNT supporters have created in their own minds.  But regardless this is it. It’s our chance to see our guys square off.  It may not be our football’s Super Bowl, but we will be watching like it was. Let’s all sit back, enjoy, and make our arguments for our guy, because after today #LDvCD may never happen again.  But regardless, it’s nice to finally have two guys worth arguing about on the biggest footballing stage in the world –even if it is only the FA Cup.

Further Reading on the Topic
World Soccer Reader<< Ginge Has Lost His Mind: Americapalooza<< Dempsey vs. Donovan: Countdown to the showdown



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