SAN JOSE, Calif. – Like any human being forced to dwell on his own mortality, Clint Dempsey allowed himself to take part in deep reflection, often asking questions that could not be immediately answered.
Late last September, the longtime United States men’s national team veteran had come face-to-face with the very real possibility that his soccer-playing days might be over due to an irregular heartbeat. The health issue forced him to miss the end of the Seattle Sounders’ championship season in Major League Soccer as well as the USMNT’s opening matches in the final round of World Cup qualifying against Mexico and Costa Rica.
As the days passed, doubt creeped in.
“You don’t know if things are going to work,” Dempsey said. “You don’t know if you’re going to come back to Seattle, also if you’re going to do well enough to get called back into the U.S. team, how you’re going to perform. You still want to be someone in games who can make an impact.
“Yeah, there’s moments where you’re sitting at home praying and hoping things work out. I’m just blessed I can keep going. It’s something I love to do. Hopefully, there’s more time left.”
If Friday is any indication, Dempsey isn’t anywhere near hearing the final whistle on his career. The 34-year-old produced a hat trick in USA’s 6-0 domination of Honduras in a crucial World Cup qualifier, scoring each goal in a unique, spectacular manner.
First, Dempsey muscled his way through two Honduran defenders to push the U.S. to a 3-0 halftime lead. The Texan bagged his second after running onto a through ball by Christian Pulisic and rounding the Honduras goalkeeper for a 5-0 cushion in the 49th minute. Then, his superb free kick made it 6-0 five minutes later.
The hat trick, the second of Dempsey’s national team career, gives him 55 career goals with the USMNT. That’s only two away from tying the all-time mark of 57 held by Landon Donovan.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue to score some goals and be able to break it,” Dempsey said. “But the most important thing is to qualify for the World Cup. That’s bigger than me trying to break a record.”
The only reason Dempsey got to start against Honduras was because of injuries to Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris, Dempsey’s Seattle Sounders teammate. When head coach Bruce Arena was asked why he chose Dempsey to partner with Jozy Altidore up top, he deadpanned: “We didn’t have anyone else.”
Dempsey had only been cleared in February to resume playing in games. Arena watched all three Sounders matches that Dempsey played, and he marveled at how much progress the former Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur star made from game to game.
“Checking with his fitness coaches there, we knew he could play,” Arena said.
U.S. captain Michael Bradley believes Dempsey is part of the squad’s old guard that provides balance to a team now loaded with young talent.
“There’s a group of us who have been through a lot of tough moments together and have been on the field on a lot of big days,” Bradley said. “The experiences together account for a lot. That’s what having a team is all about.”
“You’re just grateful for every day, every game you get to play in,” Dempsey said. “Because you never know when it’s going to be taken from you.”
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.