Dempsey’s intensity betrayed him, and MLS is stuck handing out the punishment

U.S. Soccer fans love them some Clint Dempsey. Not just for his skillful bag of flicks, tricks and kicks, but because he sports a fearlessness that embodies the American spirit. He plays with a real edge.

The thing about an edge … it’s an edge! You can tip-toe it, but when you cross the line, you might get something ridiculous like what we had on Tuesday.

Dempsey could be in real trouble. How much? Good question, one for which answers are coming soon, hopefully. Either way, this is something of a flashing red light for one of American soccer’s real heroes. This feels like the soccer world telling Dempsey, among the most heroic and successful male figures ever to wear a U.S. Soccer crest, that he needs to take it down a notch.

“Deuce” needs got to get a handle on himself; a lot is riding on his ability to do that.

The quick background is this: Emotions boiled over in extra time of Tuesday’s 4th Round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match – against the rival Portland Timbers, no less, a pairing that will always dial up the contentiousness factor.

With Seattle already a man down, referee Daniel Radford sent off Seattle’s Micheal Azira for elbowing Portland’s Gastón Fernández. Dempsey received a yellow card for protesting and then, more or less, lost his mind. The long-time U.S. international (and captain at last year’s World Cup) appeared to grab and tear up Radford’s referee’s notebook. No matter what Dempsey, you, me, Seattle manager Sigi Schmid or anyone else thought of Radford’s performance, this was the kind of lashing out from an athlete that cannot be tolerated.

Dempsey’s temper tantrum should not rise to the level of referee abuse the way, say, aggressively bumping or forcefully handling a referee would. But it certainly is a big no-no; we might call it a “gateway” into more serious referee abuse, and as such must be dealt with sternly by … well, by someone.

Either way, a suspension could be forthcoming. That’s where this is all something of a mess; it really could go a lot of different ways.

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey gestures as he celebrates scoring a goal against the Portland Timbers in the second half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Seattle. The Sounders beat the Timbers 1-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)AP

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey gestures as he celebrates scoring a goal against the Portland Timbers in the second half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Seattle. The Sounders beat the Timbers 1-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

An important thing to know here is that the U.S. Soccer policy manual requires that Major League Soccer adjudicate this incident. It’s all a bit arcane, but essentially the policy is written so that discipline for professional players is handled differently than from amateurs. Remember, the U.S. Soccer umbrella covers far, far more Sunday league kickers than pros.

Bottom line, MLS cannot push this back across the table. If the league determines that abuse or assault occurred – a determination of abuse seems more likely than assault here – then suspensions and bans could kick in. Depending on when this process takes place, any window for any suspension would cover international soccer.

So MLS is central to the process, although other punitive measures could conceivably be handed down through the U.S. Open Cup’s adjudication process (which would only affect U.S. Open Cup matches). And, of course, Jurgen Klinsmann could decide on his own to give Dempsey a little time to, you now, think about things.

The possibility appears real that Dempsey could miss a month of soccer or more.

Clint Dempsey shows he's not afraid to get a little up close and personal with referees.AP

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey, right, makes a point with referee Hilario Grajeda, left, as Los Angeles Galaxy's A.J. DeLaGarza looks on during an MLS soccer match, Monday, July 28, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Dempsey has always had a brooding element, even a bit of anti-establishment bent. Don’t forget, he didn’t exactly rise through the prototypical suburban soccer channels. (Neither did lots of American soccer players, especially some of the Latino talent, although the little suburban kicker scene remains the prevailing narrative.)

Dempsey’s harder edge, his willingness to get dirty, to bear down and out-work, out-wit, out-hustle and out-muscle anyone in his way to soccer betterment has always served him well. He took that proverbial chip on his shoulder and used it to build a long, lucrative professional career. (He’s also among the mid-season leaders as league MVP conversations gain speed. Or he was, depending on the length of any suspension.)

In short, this is Dempsey. That fierce competitiveness and unshakable fearlessness helps make him what he is – someone with the skill, drive and gumption to not just play in three World Cups, but actually score in three World Cups. And besides, he gave us the priceless “Deuce face” meme along the way!

But there are two things to know about Dempsey and his signature combative ways as they affect matters in 2015:

First, MLS matches (and clearly U.S. Open Cup matches, too) are a less stable environment. We always hear about how MLS is more physical. Well, it’s also more contentious and belligerent. (To be fair, so are quite a few other leagues around the world.) The kickoff whistle blows and rancor commences! Who really ever knows where it might go? It could land anywhere from garden variety enmity to a full-fledged donnybrook!

Referees in Dempsey’s former, long-time professional home in England are more skilled at the subtle art of de-escalation, the same way policing tactics in some areas abroad are more about de-escalation. Not so here.

So when things start getting hot, they can seriously boil over. MLS launched a campaign three years ago to cut down on some of the ceaseless histrionics along the sideline and on the field, the actions that tend to crank up overall temperature. Alas, the league initiative kind of fizzled quickly.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Peter Walton, head of Professional Referee Organization. A big emphasis for officials in 2015 was cracking down on dissent (and persistent infringement, too). It was a good move in the right direction, another attempt to reduce the temperature and increase stability, and early MLS matches did seem to come and go with a little less grousing, griping and general carrying-on. Now, sadly, we’ve seen a slow, gradual return to the former levels.

So keeping a lid on it (in MLS and U.S. Open Cup) is tough, admittedly. That’s just the way it is for now, and everyone needs to deal with it.

That brings me to the second point on Dempsey specifically: He’s not a supporting part anymore. That’s what he was at Craven Cottage all those years with Fulham, and even more so during his short spell at White Hart Lane with Spurs. In MLS Dempsey is a leader. And a darn well-paid one, among the most expensive of MLS roster pieces. That comes with additional responsibility.

That does not necessarily mean that Dempsey must tamp down that fierce competitive drive. But he does have to tame it a bit; he has to channel it properly.

It’s just not good enough to lash out the way he did Tuesday at the Starfire Sports Complex. A lot is riding on it. A lot beyond “Dempsey as role model,” too.

For Seattle, Obafemi Martins now has a groin injury. Without Martins and Dempsey, the Sounders are certainly a good team but not an elite one. What happens if a lengthy suspension costs Seattle the Supporters Shield or a higher playoff seeding (and therefore a home-field advantage at some point of the post-season)?

That CONCACAF Gold Cup that national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants so badly to win (for its Confederations Cup implications)? The United States is clearly good enough with or without Dempsey to go deep into the tournament. But against Mexico or some other regional team that gets on a roll (Costa Rica or Honduras, maybe)? Klinsmann needs his best possible roster, and in 2015 that certainly includes Dempsey.