Dempsey, Drogba have high hopes for USMNT and MLS

NEW YORK, NY — Former USMNT striker Clint Dempsey and ex-Chelsea player Didier Drogba have both spoken a lot about their shared experiences playing in Major League Soccer during the latter stages of their careers.

After two seasons at the New England Revolution following the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, Dempsey spent seven years in England before returning to the U.S. in 2013, scoring 57 goals in 136 appearances for the Seattle Sounders and winning the U.S. Open Cup (2014) and 2016 along the way.

Drogba won four Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League with Chelsea before his MLS turn with CF Montreal in 2015 and 2016, where he scored 23 times in 41 appearances.

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Since the pair hung up their boots in 2018, the league has seen significant changes including six new teams (FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami CF, Nashville SC, Austin FC, Charlotte FC, and St. Louis City SC) as well as a seventh due to launch in San Diego in 2025. It’s also become an attractive league for star names – Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Giorgio Chiellini to name a few – for which Dempsey and Drogba can be seen as trailblazers for this new movement.

No team, or player, has arguably done more for that movement than this year’s arrival of Lionel Messi.

The World Cup champion and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s move to Inter Miami this summer has helped boost the league’s popularity to unprecedented levels. Dempsey, 40, can appreciate the rise of interest in soccer in the United States with the arrival of the Argentine forward to Florida, which he believes has become a catalyst for allowing the sport to enter into more of the mainstream for the American public.

“I would describe Messi coming to the States now in terms of what moves the needle,” said Dempsey in an exclusive interview with ESPN at an EA Sports FC release party in New York City. “Like in terms of the whole country, not just people who are soccer fans but the whole country when they pay attention and watch, it normally has to take a Men’s or Women’s World Cup and with Messi coming in, he moves the needle like it’s a World Cup.”

Messi has not only brought that level of attention with his talent on the pitch but off it as well. Ticket prices for Inter Miami matches have soared more than 1,000% with some prices in the secondary market going into the thousands for his matches in the league while Messi jerseys on the online retailer Fantatics broke astronomical records. According to them, the first 24 hours of Messi jersey sales were the best 24 hours of any player changing teams across all sports.

The $2.5 billion deal with Apple TV has also been a huge part of bringing the Argentine to the league with Messi getting a cut of revenue as part of his contract, reportedly worth up to $150 million.

Drogba also shares those same sentiments. He believes the opportunities given to him and Dempsey became the building blocks for the new generation of players and fans to experience what MLS has to offer. “There are no regrets because I believe we built that, we were part of that,” said Drogba.

“That’s how life is. You build and you bring. You bring part of your experience to the game and the next generation can benefit from it.”

The success of the league has also been instrumental in how the United States national team has evolved as well.

Despite many big international names coming to apply their trade in MLS, the national team has also benefited from a mix of players who started their careers in the U.S. before making the jump abroad as well as established players who have become stars in the league.

That blend has helped the United States bounce back from their failure to not qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia to subsequently qualify for the next one in Qatar while also returning some silverware in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Nations League.

Both men are confident for the 2026 World Cup, which will take place in the United States alongside Mexico and Canada. Dempsey views Folarin Balogun and Ricardo Pepi as the main names to lead the line in the attack for Gregg Berhalter.

Both players also have had different trajectories to get to where they are now on Berhalter’s team.

Pepi started his career at FC Dallas at just 16 years old where he played for two years before making the jump to Europe playing for FC Augsburg in Germany, where he became the most expensive American MLS player to sign for a European club following a $20 million transfer fee.

The time in the Bundesliga did not work out as planned and after a loan spell at FC Groningen, he made the permanent switch to the Netherlands last summer currently playing for PSV Eindhoven with three goals in 11 matches to his name so far this season.

Balogun on the other hand, was developed at Arsenal‘s Hale End academy where he didn’t get many opportunities to play for the first team. Following loan spells at Middlesbrough and Reims, he made the permanent switch last summer to Ligue 1 playing for AS Monaco where he has three goals in five matches so far for the Monégasques after making the one-time switch to play for the U.S.

Dempsey, the joint all-time national team top goalscorer, believes the recent success in a Round of 16 finish in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and winning the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League against Canada has only made them even more competitive.

“From what I’ve been able to see from them playing on the national team, especially if you look at what happened in the Nations League, that was pretty impressive,” said Dempsey.

The performances they put in and what I like most about Balogun is his ability to create chances for himself with the pace he has and the cut-throatiness he has in front of goal. I know there are going to be others that will come to the fray but, that’s what you need to have if you want to have a top team, is to have competitions.”

The ex-Chelsea and Ivory Coast international was also full of praise for the evolution of the infrastructure that the league has achieved ever since he left in 2016.

“I think the work that MLS has done in the United States and Canada has been great and this is just the next step,” said Drogba.

This is the preparation for the World Cup. The quality of the stadiums, the quality of the games has improved with these players coming.”

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