By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 30, 2018) US Soccer Players – As if US soccer didn’t already have change roiling through it over the past year or so, on Wednesday we learned that Clint Dempsey was retiring, effective immediately.
The news, delivered with little to no warning, was stunning and more than a little painful for those of who have come to savor the lanky Texan’s unique gifts and contributions. In so many ways, it’s another reminder that a memorable era in the American game’s history is closing all around us.
Dempsey’s first year as a professional, 2004, was also my first year as a soccer journalist. He quickly turned heads, scoring seven goals and one assist en route to MLS Rookie of the Year honors. It was no accident that his New England Revolution mounted an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference final in that year’s playoffs.
United beat the Revs with Nick Rimando saving Dempsey’s penalty in the shootout. It was an epic game, hooking me on my new part-time job. Despite the setback, Dempsey, already “Deuce,” was on his way to greatness.
Dempsey leaves the game with a resume that few in this country can match. He rides into the sunset as the co-leading scorer (57) in USMNT history alongside Landon Donovan. He’s the only US player to score in three World Cups. He’s earned a program-best 43 World Cup qualifying caps, scoring 18 goals in those games, a USMNT record he shares with Jozy Altidore.
He’s won MLS Cup and reached the final on four other occasions, the US Open Cup, a Supporters’ Shield, and three Gold Cups. He’s captained his side at the World Cup (2014), and twice led his English Premier League team in scoring (Fulham in 2011 and 2012), also earning the club’s player of the year honors in both seasons. No Yank has scored more goals in the EPL (57).
Demspey helped the USMNT reach the 2009 Confederations Cup winning the Bronze Ball and team of the tournament honors along the way. He’s the only American to appear in a major European cup final, thanks to Fulham’s run in the 2010 Europa League. On most of his teams, he was Mr. Clutch, the one that fans and teammates wanted in front of goal when it counted most.
All that success has built his legend, of course. What we’ll probably all miss the most is the sheer force of personality that made his every minute on the field so compelling. That manifested itself in much more than goals and assists. His flair and creativity were second to none, showcasing sky-high levels of confidence, awareness, and technical virtuosity like few this country has ever produced.
As so many have said so many times, he seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder, even after he grew into a superstar. There was steel and a fury to him, even when his skills were on display at their most impudent and joyous. Perhaps no US player ever found a truer balance between the joy that lives at the heart of this game with the intensity and commitment required to reach its biggest stages.
“There is always another level,” former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann once said in a conversation about Dempsey. “If you one day reach the highest level, then you’ve got to confirm it, every year.”
As Deuce turns towards a quieter life with family, friends, and his beloved fishing rod and reel, can anyone – Klinsmann included – harbor any lingering doubt that he made the most of his gifts? From where I stand, Dempsey appears to have poured out every ounce of himself in his pursuit of greatness. Once he judged himself unable to produce the game-changing excellence that was his personal standard, he called time, even if unceremoniously, in the midst of his Seattle Sounders’ record-breaking hot streak as they pursue a playoff berth.
“It’s always great to be playing in the big games,’’ Dempsey said last fall, as he led the Sounders through the postseason towards their second straight MLS Cup final appearance. “That’s what you dream about as a kid. For me, if I’m not making an impact, that’s when you’ve got to hang them up, so it feels great to be able to make an impact.’’
Our contentious, wildly diverse American soccer community is highly prone to discord and disunity. It’s hard to get a large segment of it to agree on anything. Throughout, Dempsey was its man for all seasons, the one that earned everyone’s respect. I think that’s because he faced up to most every challenge that’s ever vexed a US-bred player and overcame just about all of them.
From consistent, prominent success overseas to timeless quality for the USMNT and even a starring role in the long-awaited maturation of MLS, Dempsey was fearless. He even crossed the MLS-Europe divide. That Klinsmann quote came in the wake of Deuce’s sensational return to MLS in 2013, when Seattle and the league offered him a multi-year Designated Player contract worth upwards of $5 million a season. They also paid Tottenham Hotspur a league-record $9 million transfer fee to secure his services.
When had an American soccer player seen such a deal, at home or abroad? Dempsey embraced the challenge inherent to it, coming home to herald a new chapter in the league’s history and starting a trend of hospitality towards national-team stars. As his contributions at the following year’s World Cup in Brazil showed, he hardly missed a beat in his pursuit of peak performance.
Dempsey’s journey holds up a mirror to American soccer, showcasing both our attributes and flaws. His incredible story of sacrifice and dedication, marked by the six-hour round trips between Nacogdoches and Dallas to play club soccer in his adolescence, is well-known. The fact that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids must still endure similar ordeals today shows the work American soccer still needs to do. So does the reality that Dempsey is as rare a talent now as he was when he first burst onto the scene.
We can only hope to find a way to churn out more like him in the future. Given how unheralded he was back in ‘04, the next Deuce might well be sneaking up on us right now, honing his or her greatness on the outskirts of a game willing to miss out on unquestionable talent. Though I’ll be looking closely for it, I don’t expect to see one quite like him any time soon.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The MLS developmental model and the appeal of European soccer
- As Crew edge closer to Austin, has MLS crossed a new threshold?
- Raising the roof without lifting the lid
- Steve McManaman on North American talent, playing abroad, and La Liga’s US push
Photo by Mark Thorstenson – ISIPhotos.com