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In a perfect world, Clint Dempsey’s swan song would have come earlier this summer, at the 2018 World Cup, eight months after his late goal on a soggy field in Trinidad saved the U.S. national team and sent the Americans to Russia, making him the country’s undisputed goalscoring king in the process.
Instead, Dempsey’s shot hit the post on that fateful October night, the U.S. missed a World Cup for the first time in 28 years, and on Wednesday, the 35-year-old abruptly retired midway through a difficult 2018 season with the Seattle Sounders.
The storybook ending wasn’t to be. But it was a storybook career nonetheless for Dempsey, the kid from a trailer park in rural Texas who, through sheer force of will, walks away with arguably the greatest résumé of any American player in history.
Dempsey is the only U.S. player to score in three World Cups, tallying in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 tournaments, and serving as U.S. captain at the latter. He’s tied with fellow great Landon Donovan atop the national team’s all-time scoring chart with 57 goals, despite playing in 16 fewer games. He’s also the country’s top scorer in English Premier League history, tallying 57 times for Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur between 2007 and 2013, when his move to Seattle started the trend of top national teamers leaving Europe to return to MLS.
Fifteen years after his professional debut, it’s easy to forget that Dempsey was a reserve at the 2003 U-20 World Cup, or that seven players were chosen ahead of him before he fell to the New England Revolution at the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. Time and again, he fought his way – quite literally on at least one occasion, like when he came to blows in training with similarly combative Revs captain Joey Franchino – up the ranks, first in MLS and then overseas, where he bit and scratched and clawed some more.
Dempsey started on the bench at Fulham, and that’s pretty much how it went for him at the beginning of each of his six seasons at Craven Cottage. It didn’t matter that he’d saved the Cottagers from relegation with a late goal against Liverpool that first year, or that was he consistently among the team’s best finishers. A new manager would arrive, and Dempsey would have to prove himself all over again. Every time, he did.
In truth, it’s remarkable Dempsey stuck around this long at all. It looked for all the world like he would never play again when he was diagnosed with a heart ailment in 2016. He sat out the rest of that season as a precaution while the Sounders won the MLS Cup without him. With four children to consider, plenty of money in the bank, and his playing legacy already secure, nobody would’ve blamed him for hanging up his boots there and then.
He was cleared to return to training in early 2017, but expectations were low. Then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena said publicly that Dempsey wouldn’t join the national team for a crucial pair of qualifiers that March. Then the season began, and Dempsey started scoring goals. Not only did Arena summon him, he started him in a must-win match against Honduras. Dempsey scored a hat trick in a 6-0 rout.
He’d equal Donovan’s mark during the Americans’ successful Gold Cup run last summer. But the record breaker never came. National team fans will never know if 45 more minutes on the field last October – Dempsey entered at halftime of that 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago – would have changed history for both Dempsey and the U.S.
After starting just nine games for the Sounders this season, scoring once, the time had arrived. “After a lot of thought, my family and I have decided that this is the right time for me to step away from the game,” Dempsey said Wednesday in social media post. “My dream was always to make it as a pro.”
That dream became an obsession after his older sister died of a brain aneurysm when Dempsey was a child. He was determined to succeed, in part to honor his lost sibling. His parents drove him to practice in Dallas, three hours away, a couple of times a week. A scholarship to Furman University in South Carolina followed, and it soon became clear that reaching the professional ranks was realistic. With every success, he set the bar higher again. Still, few could’ve predicted Dempsey’s legendary hunger would eventually turn him into a star at the sport’s highest levels.
“You’re going to push to the end and fight as long as you can,” Dempsey said last summer when discussing his future. During the same interview, the intensely personal Dempsey let slip that before those 163-mile drives back to Nacogdoches following training sessions with the Dallas Texans, his father would sometimes buy a lottery ticket.
Asked if he ever won, Dempsey replied that, given the way his life had gone, it felt like he had. U.S. soccer fans have been almost as lucky just to go along for the ride.
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