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Originally published August 4, 2013 at 6:24 PM | Page modified August 5, 2013 at 9:08 PM

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Already a sensation off the field, Clint Dempsey could turn Sounders into MLS favorites

The stunning signing of superstar Clint Dempsey, who will be at an introductory news conference on Monday, might just vault Sounders FC from MLS Cup contender to MLS Cup favorite.

Seattle Times staff reporter

SATURDAY

Sounders FC @ Toronto FC, 4 p.m., KONG

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The secret was eating up Eddie Johnson.

The Sounders FC forward, forthcoming almost to a fault, was dying to tell everyone that his buddy, superstar Clint Dempsey, was about to join the team in a colossal shake-up of the MLS landscape.

But he held his tongue as seemingly unrealistic rumors of the move Thursday quickly turned to “Can this really be happening?” reports Friday and eventually to official confirmation minutes before Saturday’s home win against FC Dallas.

“Now the whole world knows,” said Johnson, the burden of secrecy lifted. “What a great contribution to our team and ... to this league. You know every little kid in America wants to be like Clint.”

Dempseymania has led to Sounders FC euphoria, and the expectations for the team might have leapt from being an MLS Cup contender to MLS Cup favorite — particularly in a season without a clear front-runner.

Dempsey, the captain of U.S. national team who was purchased from Tottenham of the English Premier League, joins a Seattle team that is getting healthier, hungrier and hotter.

“I think we’ll accomplish some great things here,” Dempsey told fans in a pregame presentation Saturday.

Dempsey, who has already met fans and teammates, will be available to local media for the first time in a news conference Monday afternoon. The 30-year-old midfielder, though, already began to explain what brought him to Seattle in an interview during KING 5’s halftime show during the win over Dallas.

“Going into the season, I thought I was going to be at Tottenham,” Dempsey said, “but MLS and the Seattle Sounders, they moved mountains to get me here. I am excited to be back in America.”

MLS is the same league Dempsey played in from 2004-06 with the New England Revolution, but mostly just in name.

Six new teams have joined since the he left for the Premier League, and MLS is expected to add another five teams by the end of the decade. Attendance, quality and interest are all trending up, and no more was that encapsulated than by a handful of Sounders fans running around Sea-Tac Airport until after midnight Thursday in hopes of spotting the new signing.

“It makes you feel like it’s proper, it’s a real sport — you know? And that’s the passion that you need,” said midfielder Brad Evans. “It probably wasn’t there even five or six years ago. I think before our team came along, there wasn’t anything like that. People weren’t staking out at airports to see their favorite players coming in, and that just says a lot to the game and how much it’s grown.”

And perhaps nothing has grown more than the Sounders’ MLS Cup prospects.

Hahnemann makes MLS return

On any other day, Marcus Hahnemann would’ve been Seattle’s big story Saturday.

The veteran goalkeeper — still not fully healed from a hamstring strain — started his first MLS game since June 26, 1999, setting a new league record for time in between appearances at 14 years, one month and eight days.

The 41-year-old began his MLS career with the Colorado Rapids in 1996, but left for a career in England three years later. He returned last summer with the Sounders, where has served as backup behind Michael Gspurning (who is out with a forearm injury).

“It’s an incredible time,” said Hahnemann, a Seattle native. “My career has been unbelievable; I’ve been so blessed.”

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