By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 10, 2021) US Soccer Players – On Tuesday, Clint Dempsey turned 38 years-old. Retiring during the 2018 Major League Soccer season, Dempsey and his story hold a special place in the hearts of American soccer fans. He represents a platonic ideal of populist soccer achievement in a country that wages continual internal battles over access to the sport. Dempsey doesn’t fit the well-heeled suburban youth club profile of the typical American soccer player. He arrived on the scene at a time when stories like his were in short supply.
Throw in a few details unique to Dempsey and his upbringing, and he begins to sound more like a character from a movie than a real person. Hollywood hasn’t yet made the movie about the American soccer player from Texas who plays his way to the big stages of Europe. If they did, Dempsey is the model.
Dempsey’s story began in the Texas town of Nacogdoches, a burg of 33,000 that sits near the state’s eastern border, halfway between Dallas and Houston. It’s exactly the kind of place that tests American soccer’s ability to scout and nurture talent. With no professional outfit nearby and only a few major college soccer programs in the region, the path for Dempsey from precocious youngster to the USMNT and the Premier League wasn’t just unclear. It practically didn’t exist.
Your take on youth development in this country determines how loud Dempsey’s story resonates. The family commitment to create opportunities even if it meant long drives. Getting overlooked by the college powers. Drafted 8th overall by New England. Eventually emerging not just as a generational player but a unique personality. All of these feed into the Dempsey story.
For every player, eventually making it to the World Cup and the Premier League would highlight what it took to get there. For Dempsey, it underlines those issues discovering talent in a country the size of the United States. Playing with an edge and a confidence that most Americans seemed to lack, Dempsey built his game into something undeniable.
Even if you don’t buy Dempsey as the progenitor of an American soccer youth movement, his story is powerful as an example of what a kid of lesser means can become if our nation removes more barriers to access. The American soccer landscape has changed dramatically since Dempsey’s experience in Texas. Weston McKennie’s experience is just one example. That doesn’t mean that the work is complete.
With Dempsey’s career done and his legacy secure, his story remains attractive because it speaks to an imagined untapped potential in American soccer. Investment over the past ten years and the arrival of the elite American player on the world scene justified some of that potential. Still, as the American soccer ecosphere becomes better at producing players, the bar moves higher and higher.
At no point does Dempsey’s story need to be retired because only world dominance could satisfy those who see soccer’s structures as problematic. In one way they’re right. There’s no reason to be satisfied as long as some talented players don’t get the opportunity their skill deserves. In another way overstating the latent talent in the United States shifts focus from improving other areas of the game.
Something unique is about to happen with Dempsey’s story. It will soon need telling to American soccer fans who didn’t experience his career while it was happening. It’s worth asking how that new generation of fans contextualizes the career of a player whose most celebrated moment came against a massive club that now features an American player.
Will Dempsey’s story still be as magical with the standard for American soccer excellence elevated to some of the biggest clubs in the world? As the window of experience shifts and American fans know of Dempsey only through YouTube videos and stories told by older fans, he might move further into the realm of myth. A lower-middle-class kid from a small town in Texas making it to the Premier League before MLS even had working academies will sound almost impossible.
Dempsey’s retirement was also a step back from the game. It’s a choice, and it’s his, bypassing the kind of work that would keep him in the conversation. It’s worth wondering what that will mean moving forward. There’s that air of legend simply because he’s not doing much talking.
Whatever happens to Dempsey’s story as it ages in the years ahead, nothing can change the influence of Dempsey the player. Back when Americans weren’t supposed to be cocky on a soccer field when the ceiling for an American player was a year or three in a middling European league, Dempsey proved something else was possible. That pivotal moment in American soccer history will always be worth celebrating.
More From Jason Davis:
- Chris Henderson and Inter Miami’s quick revamp
- Sebastian Lletget and another new look for the LA Galaxy
- CF Montreal regroups
- Americans in Turkey’s Super Lig
Photo by Mark Thorstenson – ISIPhotos.com