In conjunction with the beginning of the 2014 MLS season, MLSsoccer.com continues its series covering some of the biggest names in the league this year. Next up is a look back through the years for Clint Dempsey, who will lead the Seattle Sounders against Toronto FC at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Saturday (4:30 pm ET, NBCSN in US, TSN/RDS2 in Canada).
Dempsey's road began in the small town of Nacogdoches, Texas, and has taken tours through South Carolina, Massachusetts, Germany, England, South Africa, Seattle and, this summer, to Brazil for his third World Cup.
Early years: Dempsey grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas
MIKE VILLARREAL, childhood friend: "Most of our afternoons, we were going over to the intramural fields and playing pickup soccer. Especially in the summer. We really weren’t out running the streets or anything. We didn’t have a whole bunch of money, so we thought we hit it big if we had 10 bucks or something to go to Taco Bell.
"Clint's had a lot of success and met a lot of different people and been a lot of different places, but he doesn’t let a lot of people in unless he knows who you are and what you’re about. That’s why he’s kept a lot of his friends close to him, because we’ve been there since the beginning. We’ve been around him since before he was famous and had all this success. And he understands that and he embraces it. He keeps his friends close."
1998-2001: Dempsey stars for youth soccer powerhouse Dallas Texans
KEITH HODDER, coach with Dallas Texans: "He was at the Texans for about four to five years, and that last two or three years, his game really developed. And if we helped him in any way, it was in the fact that we didn’t over-coach him. We just encouraged him to do his thing. If he was in the final third and he felt he wanted to take a player on, I certainly wasn’t going to stop him and tell him to make the simple pass. He had the ability, even then, to change the entire game for you."
"The Texans have built this new six-field facility, and we actually put the names of guys like Clint and Omar Gonzalez on the parking lots. So one day I turned up for practice and there was a red Ferrari parked there, and all the kids ran up to me yelling, ‘Is that Clint Dempsey?! Is Clint here?!’ It wasn’t Clint, though. He drives an SUV because he’s got kids now."
Photo: Dallas Cup
2001-03: Dempsey stars at Furman University in Greeneville, S.C.
DOUG ALLISON, men's soccer coach at Furman: "The first time I saw Clint he was a junior in high school, and he was on the same field as Ricardo Clark on the North Texas regional team. Every time Clint got the ball, he never seemed to be under pressure and he had more time on the ball than any other kid. Ricardo was the big recruit that year, and he had committed to us, but you could tell Clint had something. He was tall and skinny, but he had this incredible touch, and he was unpredictable. Some coaches shy away from that, but I was thrilled he expressed himself."
"When Clint made the Furman Hall of Fame, he couldn’t make the ceremony, because he was playing for Fulham that day. So his parents came and his dad made the speech, and I told his parents we’d check them into the Hyatt downtown and take them to dinner. They told me they’d never stayed in a hotel in the three years they drove up from Texas to South Carolina to watch Clint play. They couldn’t afford to, and they just camped every time. So when Clint won the US Honda Player of the Year, what did he do? He bought his dad a truck. That’s the kind of kid he is, and that’s why every time he’s on the field he has a point to prove all the time. You’re just not supposed to make it from there."
Photo: Furman University
2002-03: Dempsey joins US Under-20 national team, goes to 2003 U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates
DOUG ALLISON: "Clint told me a story later about when he first got onto the Under-20 national team. They must have been scrimmaging the national team or practicing with them, and at some point he was sitting there with all the other guys betting that when he got onto the field that he would nutmeg Cobi Jones. He said, ‘I just want to nutmeg him. I don’t know why.’ And then apparently he got on the field and he ended up nutmegging Cobi Jones. Then some other big-name national team guy comes and clocks Clint and says, ‘You’re a punk. You don’t do that stuff here.’ The Under-20 coach [Thomas Rongen] called me later and said, ‘What kind of kid have you sent me here?’ I told him, ‘If you take care of this kid, he’ll take care of you.'"
2004-07: Dempsey is named Rookie of the Year in 2004; leads Revolution to three MLS Cup finals
STEVE RALSTON, former Revolution teammate: “We knew he was a talented player. There was no question. When he first got to New England his rookie year, he always had a chip on his shoulder on the field. He didn’t give a [expletive] about what anyone thought, whether you were an older player or a rookie. He just went out and wanted to play. And he wanted to win. He didn’t care what other people thought, and that was just his personality.”
Photos: Getty Images
2006: Dempsey scores in the World Cup in Germany
BRUCE ARENA, US national team coach at 2006 World Cup: "Clint had a lot of ability. He has a nose for the goal. We have an expression for some players – for Clint, we continually said, 'He tries [expletive].' He’s got the confidence to try things in the penalty area and the final third of the field, and there’s a lot to be said for that: a confident player and a guy with a goalscoring mentality. That’s what I saw in him. It was a little early for him at that point in time, but he got a big goal against Ghana."
ARENA: "I think that goal did wonders because everything moved forward from there. Having him get a goal in a World Cup – I heard a story the other day that [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi and [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic have a total of three World Cup goals, while Landon [Donovan] has five. And Clint has one*, so he’s in good company. So obviously it did a lot for his confidence."
* Dempsey now has two after scoring against England in 2010
2006: Revolution reject transfer bid for Dempsey by Charlton Athletic ... and Everton?
STEVE NICOL, former Revolution head coach: "Once we decided that we were going to turn down the Charlton offer, Paul [Mariner, assistant coach] and I sat down with Clint and tried to convince him that Charlton wasn't the place to go: 'No disrepect to Charlton, but there are places you should be going and you're actually good enough to go there. The money's not right for a start. But at the same time, it's not the place for you to go.'"
"Actually, Everton wanted him. As far as I know, Everton said, 'Sit tight for another 12 months [until your contract is up] and we'll give you a certain amount of the money we would spend on the transfer.' But Clint wasn't interested in money. Clint just wanted to go and play."
"So basically, we sat him down and said, 'You've got to keep doing what you're doing. If you want to go play with a team in one of the big leagues, then you have to make sure that as much as you're disappointed now, you have to keep doing what you're doing. And if you do that, bigger and better teams will come in for you.' He looked at us like we'd just crushed his whole world, you know? But by the time he left the room, I think he understood that he was better than what was being offered. Fortunately for everyone, it worked out: A Premier League club came in for him."
Photos: Getty Images
2007-2012: Dempsey joins EPL's Fulham FC, stars for five seasons
CARLOS BOCANEGRA, former Fulham teammate: "It was nice when Clint came over to have another American on the team. But it didn’t go as planned. He didn’t get much playing time. But he kept working hard in training. He made it so the coaches had a hard choice. He finally got a chance and he took it."
"It wasn’t harder because he was American. If you’re a good enough player, then you’re a good enough player and you’re gonna play. I told him success comes in all shapes, forms, and fashions. He was resilient and it worked out. He’s now a cult hero at Fulham."
Photos: Action Images
2012: Dempsey transfers to Tottenham Hotspur for $9 million
LYLE YORKS, Dempsey's agent: "In the final week, there was a lot of activity, but Tottenham was already in the latter stages [of talks]. In the final day, Aug. 31, we had discussions with Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool. The day before we also had interest from Stoke, Sunderland, Aston Villa – there was no shortage of clubs. All those clubs [showing interest from outside England, such as Fiorentina, Napoli and Schalke] were a little complicated. There was interest, but like in Germany, you have to put it on a list by noon the last day and submit that to [the German federation], and that didn't happen. But he always wanted to stay in England, to talk to one of the top three or four clubs."
Photos: Tottenham Hotspur | Action Images
2013: Dempsey transfers to Seattle Sounders, scores 1 goal in 9 games
DON GARBER, MLS Commissioner (August 2013): "We have been going through a process that started almost 10 years ago to try and find the players that could really make a statement about our league and our plan to be a legitimate player on the global stage. That really started with Landon Donovan. Then it kicked to a higher gear with David Beckham, which was a statement that MLS was serious about having well-known international players who'd perform for us on and off the field. With Clint, it takes all of this to an even higher level. For the first time we have a world-renowned player who has international experience who's saying I want to come to Major League Soccer in my prime."
LANDON DONOVAN, USMNT teammate: "Clint’s been going nonstop for so long and I think we saw it a bit at the end of last year – he was really burnt out and there was just crazy expectations on him. Unless you go through that, people don’t really understand what that’s like. I remember thinking at the end of last year, Clint just needs a break because he wasn’t himself on the field. He didn’t have that same fire and that’s not the Clint we know. That’s not the Clint that’s made him the best player on our national team the past few years. We need to see that if we’re going to succeed. Hopefully he had some time off after the season a little bit to chill out."
Photos: USA Today Sports Images
2014: Dempsey struggles on two-month loan with Fulham
DONOVAN: "It’s a tough balance because coaches are wired to go, go, go, go, go. And I’ve seen it in all the soccer world now, so many players are just completely burned out and careers are shorter now because players are just getting beaten into the ground and you can’t take it. I think it’s only a matter of time until a guy like Messi breaks down. Cristiano [Ronaldo], he’s a superior athlete so maybe he doesn’t break down. [Wayne] Rooney broke down a lot over the last few years. [Robin] van Persie ... The game is so much faster and so much more physical than it’s ever been. You can’t train the same way. You can’t be going 11 months a year, you can’t play 50-plus games a year, it’s just not possible. I guess it’s a coaching thing, but as players, we’re not machines. We can’t do that forever. Maybe a year or two years, but eventually you’re going to break down."
Photo: Action Images
2014: Dempsey returns to Seattle for season, earns assist in Sounders opening win
DEMPSEY: “You have to have that if you want to win something. It’s still early days, but getting a goal in injury time does show that you’re fighting to the end, but it’s a long season. I think your true character shows over time and I think it’s clawing your way back after conceding goals and also it’s being able to get goals in the final few minutes and, hopefully, we can do that this season.”
Photo: USA Today Sports Images