23 Thoughts: Why Dempsey is the best American player ever, and what's next for his USMNT generation

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Clint Dempsey is Doug McIntyre’s pick as greatest American player ever. (Getty)
Clint Dempsey is Doug McIntyre’s pick as greatest American player ever. (Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 23 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

We’ll kick off this week’s column with a few more words on – who else? – Clint Dempsey, who announced his retirement on Wednesday. The out-of-nowhere news elicited an avalanche of heartfelt tributes to Dempsey from across the American soccersphere, and for good reason: Deuce’s story and the way he played the game resonated with people.

I tweeted yesterday what I’ve written in the past, that in my opinion, Dempsey is the greatest U.S. player of all time. Let’s be clear. I don’t intend to disparage Landon Donovan, the only other contender for that title for now (with all due respect to OGs like Claudio Reyna and Brad Friedel), by saying this. Donovan is a legend in his own right. Based on sheer ability, he’s probably the superior player. I don’t think Donovan’s accomplishments get the respect they deserve either, especially in Europe, because he decided to spend most of his career in MLS. That said, “GOAT” is a subjective designation. I lean toward Dempsey for two simple reasons.

1. No American attacker has ever been as consistently good, for as long, against elite European club competition. The Premier League was probably the best in the world when Dempsey arrived in 2007. (I’d say it’s third now, behind La Liga and the Bundesliga). The Champions league final was an all-English affair the following year. The best strikers flocked there. But by the time he left for the Sounders in 2013, Deuce had turned himself into one of the most reliable scorers in the Prem.

2. Look at the numbers. Over his final three seasons in England, Deuce scored 36 league goals. According to TruMedia stats guru Paul Carr, only five players (Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Demba Ba and Gareth Bale) managed more during that span. And Dempsey, who was often deployed as a midfielder, got all but seven of those goals playing for Fulham, not Manchester City or Man United or Arsenal.  

3. Dempsey’s legendary competitiveness is the other thing that sets him apart. People say he played with a chip on his shoulder. I think he had one on both. The memory of Dempsey walking off the field after the U.S. squandered a two-goal lead and lost the 2009 Confederations Cup final to Brazil spoke volumes. He was inconsolable, the tears streaming down his face. Dempsey scored the opener in that match, and he also had the clincher in the 2-0 upset of Spain in the semis.

4. To be sure, that loss stung every U.S. player. Yet most of them seemed to realize that they had done themselves and their country proud, that there was no shame in losing a close final to the best national team in history. Not Clint. He was devastated. Dempsey personified American’s soccer’s ongoing quest for global respect more than any player I’ve ever seen.

5. Years ago, I interviewed The Price is Right host (and Seattle Sounders minority owner) Drew Carey about his brief stint as a USMNT photographer. He told a great story about a young Dempsey, who was with the U.S. for a friendly against Poland in Germany ahead of the 2006 World Cup. As the American players poured out of the tunnel for warmups, two local shutterbugs were blocking their path. The other Yanks simply jogged around them, but Dempsey ran straight up to the pair and screamed “Get the f*** out of my way!” They did. Those seven words are Dempsey in a nutshell.

6. Admittedly, covering  Dempsey’s career form start to finish probably influences my GOAT pick. U.S. Soccer posted a video of all 57 of his international goals on Wednesday. I saw more than half of them in person. Dempsey’s first came in the first USMNT game I covered for ESPN the Magazine, against England in Chicago way back in 2005. A few weeks later, I was embedded with an MLS “Select Team” that traveled to Spain to play Real Madrid for the Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu. The visitors lost 5-0. At breakfast the next morning, I asked Clint if he could appreciate the skill Zinedine Zidane, (Brazilian) Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, et al. had displayed the night before. The look he shot me could’ve killed. He was pissed. I always got the sense teammates and team staffers, even those he was tight with, were always a little scared of Deuce. Maybe for good reason. I’ve heard at least one story that involved Deuce pinning a guy to the wall by his neck. 

7. Tim Howard belongs next to Dempsey on the USMNT’s Mount Rushmore, but it’s been difficult to watch Howard struggle with an awful Colorado team this season. Last weekend’s 6-0 loss at home to rival Real Salt Lake was the lowlight. Howard’s contract runs through the end of next season, when he’ll be 40.

Longtime U.S. stalwarts like Tim Howard might not get a chance for a proper send-off. (Goal.com)
Longtime U.S. stalwarts like Tim Howard might not get a chance for a proper send-off. (Goal.com)

8. One of the consequences of missing the 2018 World Cup was that it effectively ended the international careers of several decorated veterans, including Howard and Dempsey. Few athletes go out on their own terms. Donovan did; when he announced his first retirement in mid-2014, then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati persuaded Jurgen Klinsmann to recall Donovan and make him captain for a friendly against Ecuador just months after Klinsmann cut Donovan from the World Cup roster. My understanding is that the USSF has considered, at least informally, some kind of testimonial match or another way to honor those players. But with so many fans still furious about the qualifying failure, the idea never gained traction. That’s understandable, but it’s also a shame.

9. Look, supporters have the right to cheer and boo who they want. But the degree to which some U.S. “fans” hate on their own players is disgraceful. Donovan is polarizing to this day. And for all the love Dempsey is getting right now, it wasn’t always the case, as my old running buddy Luke Cyphers noted in this story from 2010.

10. Jozy Altidore has been a favorite target of his own fans since he was a teenager. The lack of appreciation for Altidore’s contributions by some of his countrymen drives me insane. Altidore is 28. He has 41 international goals, and will probably break Dempsey’s and Donovan’s shared record at some point. Yet a vocal portion of the fan base thinks that arguably the best pure forward the U.S. has ever produced, in his prime, shouldn’t continue with a team that has little experience or depth up top. It’s nuts.

11. FIFA president Gianni Infantino had some interesting things to say about MLS when he spoke with reporters after meeting President Trump at the White House on Tuesday. “I would definitely like to see soccer in the U.S. becoming one of the top sports, not number five,” Infantino said. A Gallup poll in January found that soccer is the fourth-most popular sport in the United States and quickly closing ground on baseball. Was he talking about MLS, which is still clearly behind the “big four” —  the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League — among North American pro sports leagues?

12. I mentioned last week that hockey was the inspiration for this column. Part of the reason I’ve always believed in soccer’s potential in America is because of the NHL. If an expensive niche sport played and watched mostly by white folks in northern states can become a mainstream spectator pastime in the U.S., then the upside for the world’s most popular game seems limitless. But I chuckle when MLS fans suggest that the league has already overtaken the NHL.

13. Infantino said MLS is the “number 20 or 30” league in the world. I’d say it’s in the 10-15 range, and getting better every year.  However, if MLS spent what the NHL does on salaries, it would instantly be among the best on the planet. The average NHL player earns around $3 million, about 10 times what the typical MLS player pulls in. And with MLS teams limited to three high-earning designated players, the gap is even bigger if you use median figures.

14. Sure, Atlanta United is more relevant than the NHL Thrashers ever were in that city before the latter left town in 2011. But Atlanta United is an outlier. When I sat down with MLS commissioner Don Garber in June, I was slightly surprised that he didn’t foresee any significant changes to MLS’s spending on players in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup. However, with more than a few markets – Chicago, Colorado New England, Dallas, Houston – struggling commercially, it makes sense. The NHL celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. It’s entrenched. MLS isn’t there yet. I’ve covered both leagues, and the NHL is a more polished and mature operation in every way. However, I do think MLS can and will surpass hockey in popularity in America within the next 15 years.

15. Minnesota United’s Miguel Ibarra was trending up on my first USMNT Stock Watch earlier this week, but I don’t believe he’ll be on the roster for next month’s friendlies against Brazil and Mexico when it’s announced on Sunday.

It seems time D.C. United’s Paul Arriola got a USMNT call-up. (AP)
It seems time D.C. United’s Paul Arriola got a USMNT call-up. (AP)

16. Will D.C. United’s Paul Arriola return to the national team? When Arriola wasn’t on the U.S. roster for three games in May and June, it seemed like a courtesy to his club. Few MLS players were involved in those matches. Earlier this month the 23-year-old told me that wasn’t the case. “Back in May, maybe my form wasn’t so great,” he said, adding that he hadn’t heard from interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan since January. “I think I’ve done enough [since], but those aren’t my decisions. I’d love to be there.”

17. One thing that could prevent Arriola and club teammate Bill Hamid from being summoned by Sarachan: D.C., still in the palyoff hunt, has a league game the night after both U.S. matches.

18. Both Sarachan and his predecessor, Bruce Arena, asked for more “end product” from Arriola. Perhaps a position change could help. The San Diego-area native has been deployed in a central playmaking role with D.C. most of this season after being used mostly on the wing for the U.S. and ex-club Tijuana. The difference in production is obvious. Arriola had a goal and two assists in 11 games after arriving from Xolos towards the end of 2017. In 21 appearances so far this year, he has four goals and eight helpers.

19. Wayne Rooney has made United more dangerous offensively, Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union notwithstanding. Arriola has been more impressed with the Manchester United legend’s defensive positioning. “The only other player I’ve played with that gives me the same confidence defensively is Michael Bradley,” he said. And that was before the Rooney’s now-famous slide tackle on Orlando’s Will Johnson that led to a late winner on Aug. 12.

20. Portland’s 2-0 win over Toronto in Wednesday’s nightcap snapped the Timbers’ four-game losing streak and helped Giovanni Savarese’s team leapfrog the Sounders and the LA Galaxy and back into a playoff spot. The Timbers and Sounders both have two games in hand on the Galaxy. 

21. I hope the Galaxy make the postseason, mainly because I’m not ready to wait until next year to see another “Trafico” against LAFC.  Whatever you think of the rivalry’s nickname (I like it), all three games the crosstown foes played this season more than lived up the billing. Great advertisements for the league, too, not least because both teams’ stadiums have natural grass fields.

22. My understanding is that Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid has another year to run on his contract. But it’s hard to see him returning to the sideline if LA falls short.

23. There’s been rumblings about former league MVP and current Boca Juniors manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto – who won MLS Cup playing under Schmid in Columbus — potentially returning to coach in MLS. In May, he admitted he’s open to it. This week, he suggested he could leave Boca at the end of the year. Not sure if this is out there, but it’s worth mentioning that Schelotto has maintained the residency requirements to keep the U.S. green card he received in 2010. He also still has a house in Ohio’s capital. 

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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