As part of SB Nation’s “What if” week, we take a look at our own Columbus Crew SC “What ifs” beginning with what if the Crew drafted Clint Dempsey over Chad Marshall in 2004.
It is the 2004 MLS SuperDraft and D.C. United is on the clock. Except that everyone in attendance and watching around Major League Soccer knows D.C. is taking 14-year-old hype machine Freddy Adu with the No. 1 overall pick. That means, in actuality, it is the Columbus Crew who is on the clock at pick No. 2.
Once the inevitable Adu pick is in, Crew general manager Jim Smith and head coach Greg Andrulis must make a decision. The assumed choice is for the team to select Stanford product, Chad Marshall. Standing at 6-foot-4, Marshall was the stereotypical center back who helped guide the Cardinal to the 2002 College Cup final and was named to the All-Pac-12 first team the year prior.
This is the obvious choice. But the Crew hesitate because there’s someone else the team is interested in.
As many Black & Gold fans know, the Crew didn’t hesitate in this situation. Smith and Andrulis took Marshall and the rest is history. The team went on to win the 2004 Supporters’ Shield with the best record in the league and Marshall partnered with veteran center back, and 2004 MLS Defender of the Year, Robin Fraser, to build MLS’s second-best defensive unit that season. Marshall played in 28 games, starting 27, and finished second in MLS Rookie of the Year voting, setting up what would be a Hall of Fame career split between Columbus and the Seattle Sounders.
But what if Smith and Andrulis decided differently during that 2004 draft? What if instead of Marshall, they took the player that did win Rookie of the Year, Clint Dempsey?
In our reality, Dempsey went No. 8 overall to the New England Revolution. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine seven better players than Dempsey, who went on to star in the English Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham after three seasons with the Revs before returning to MLS to play with Marshall and the Sounders as well as having a record-setting career with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
But what if the Crew focused on offense in the 2004 SuperDraft instead of defense? How different might history play out?
The Black & Gold came into this draft after being one of two MLS teams to miss the playoffs in 2003. That season, Columbus was middle of the pack on offense and defensive, scoring and allowing 44 goals in 30 games. But the team lost star forward Brian McBride to Fulham that offseason meaning his 12 goals and three assists needed replacing.
Of course, veteran center back Mike Clark would soon announce his retirement, something the organization was well aware of, meaning there was a hole in the center of the defense. That void was partially filled by the addition of Fraser, who was acquired from the Colorado Rapids. Pairing the young Marshall with the experienced Frasier was a tasty proposition for the Crew.
But in this alternate reality, the Black & Gold go the other direction, instead taking the flashy kid with the moppy hair from Furman, hoping he can help spark the attack on the wing and bring some excitement to Crew Stadium in 2004 and the years to come.
With Dempsey the No. 2 pick, Columbus enters the 2004 MLS season as not much more than an afterthought. The offense has some key pieces in veteran Jeff Cunningham, fourth-year forward Edson Buddle and attacking midfielder Kyle Martino but not enough to make this team a favorite. What the league doesn’t know is that Dempsey is about to add a spark that the Crew hadn’t seen in some time.
With the ability to play on either wing, Dempsey quickly becomes a starter for the Black & Gold. With Buddle taking on the target forward role vacated by McBride and Cunningham playing off him with his speed and dribbling ability, Dempsey has two players he can get the ball to in dangerous positions. This takes pressure off Martino to be the creator and allows him, along with midfielders Simon Elliott, Brian Maisonneuve and Ross Paule, to dictate Columbus’ attack and control the midfield.
Dempsey also brings his scoring acumen to the Crew that year. While he contributes six assists throughout the course of his 24 games played in the regular season, Demspey also manages six goals, making the Black & Gold attack one of the most feared in MLS.
In a partnership that would continue in the years to come with the U.S. National Team, Dempsey and fullback Frankie Hejduk give Columbus a nice tandem on the right side. But Dempsey’s versatility allows him to switch flanks with the likes of Manny Lagos, Danny Sztela, David Testo and others when necessary.
On the defensive side, the Crew has a bit of an issue. While Jon Busch puts together a solid season in between the pipes, the Black & Gold certainly miss a steady fixture to team with Fraser, who has a good year of his own. Using a rotating group of Duncan Oughton, Nelson Akwari and Stephen Herdsman as makeshift center backs, Columbus is able to muddle through the year defensively, relying on possession and the offense to keep opponents away from goal. Later in the year, the Crew acquires U.S. National Team veteran Tony Sanneh to form a tandem with Fraser that helps push the team into the MLS Cup playoffs with its first Supporters’ Shield and the top overall seed.
With Dempsey as part of the Black & Gold attack, Columbus has little issue with New England in the first round, winning the two-leg series 3-1 on aggregate. In the conference finals, it’s a battle of the top two picks from the draft in Adu’s United and Dempsey’s Crew. The 2004 Rookie of the Year, Dempsey, gets revenge for not going first overall, scoring the winning penalty kick in the shootout to send the Black & Gold to the team’s first-ever MLS Cup Final.
In the championship game, Columbus runs into the LA Galaxy who boasted the league’s best defense in 2004 thanks in large part to No. 3 overall pick Chad Marshall. It’s an exciting game with plenty of action, but with the Galaxy playing at the “neutral” Home Depot Center in Carson, California, and the overall better defense, LA secures its second MLS Cup title.
Licking its wounds, the Crew returns home, determined to build on the success of 2004. New general manager Mark McCullers trades Cunningham to FC Dallas, who missed the 2004 playoffs, for the No. 6 overall selection in the SuperDraft and take Wake Forest defender Michael Parkhurst.
Similarly cerebral, Parkhurst blossoms as a young center back playing alongside Fraser in 2005 and becomes the second straight Crew player to win Rookie of the Year. With the addition of veteran Chris Henderson on the wing, Demspey moves up top to play alongside Buddle. The Black & Gold again have a dangerous attack and, with Fraser, Sanneh and Parkhurst now all on the backline, and a combination of Busch and Johnny Walker in goal, the defense is much improved.
A more balanced Columbus finishes first in the Eastern Conference yet again but surrenders the Supporters’ Shield to the San Jose Earthquakes. The motivation of not finishing first overall, along with the disappointment of the 2004 loss, fuels the team to storm through the postseason, defeating the New York/New Jersey Metrostars and the Chicago Fire along the way to a second straight MLS Cup Final battle with the Galaxy. Playing in Dallas this year, the Crew isn’t disadvantaged and better equipped, taking down LA 3-1 for the team’s first championship.
The 2006 season brings similar success, despite the retirement of Fraser. The Black & Gold continue with the tandem of Buddle and Dempsey up top, with Joseph Ngwenya and Kei Kamara chipping in offensively. Columbus finishes second in the East to D.C. United but fails to reach the final this year as Dempsey battles postseason injuries.
After the year, Dempsey is purchased by Fulham for $6 million, the largest amount the league ever receives for a player. This sends the Crew into rebuild mode, focusing around Parkhurst. The Black & Gold, now under the leadership of Sigi Schmid, who is pulled out of retirement by the Crew following the decision by Andrulis to step away, acquire playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, forward Alejandro Moreno and winger Robbie Rogers as the team looks to reinvent itself.
Dempsey goes on to have a long and productive career in the EPL before returning to MLS to play in Seattle in 2013.
In this alternate reality, Dempsey’s career doesn’t change much as he continues to be the exciting, attacking player he was in New England. Marshall ends up in LA in a similarly successful run but still deals with injuries. But playing in a big market gets him more interest from the U.S. National Team, where he has a more productive international career.
The Crew wins an MLS Cup earlier than in our timeline and more exposure and money due to Dempsey’s career trajectory. But the team doesn’t have all the pieces in place for the real 2008 title push. Whether Schmid — who, in the hypothetical situation, retired after winning with the Galaxy in 2004 — is able to make it work without Marshall and Eddie Gaven (who was traded for Buddle in 2006) is a question for another day.