Warshaw: What made Clint Dempsey so special? It was the "sauce"

The most incredible non-US men’s national team soccer moment I’ve ever witnessed came on a Thursday back in 2010. Fulham were hosting Juventus in the Europa League round of 16. The English side were leading 3-1 on the day, but the aggregate was tied at 4-4.

In the 82nd minute, Clint Dempsey received the ball at the top of the box on the corner of the ‘D’, took his first touch wide, took his second touch toward goal, and used his third touch to chip the Juventus 'keeper to the back post. As the ball floated toward and then over the helpless Antonio Chimenti, it felt unreal.

An American scoring in the Europa League semifinal.

An American scoring a chip from 18 yards.

An American even trying a chip like that. Not a Brazilian or Argentinian or Frenchman.

A @#$%^& &^%$&’ American.

The audacity.

And despite the incredible nature of the play, it wasn’t surprising. It was perfectly normal for what we’d known Dempsey to become. We’ve developed good players in our country. But we’ve never had anyone like Dempsey, who on Wednesday called time on his 15-year playing career.

Dempsey’s numbers alone put him at the top of any American soccer conversation. He’s tied for the most goals scored all-time for the USMNT. He’s the only American male to score in three consecutive World Cups. He scored in the Confederations Cup semifinal against Spain and the final against Brazil. He scored 57 goals in the English Premier League, and another 72 in Major League Soccer. Twice MLS Best XI, MLS All-Star on four occasions, Rookie of the Year and three MLS Cup appearances.

Yet the numbers barely scratch the surface of Dempsey’s contributions to the country’s game.

When you consider the pantheon of elite American men’s players:

  • Landon Donovan
  • Claudio Reyna
  • Tab Ramos
  • Brian McBride
  • Eddie Pope
  • John Harkes
  • Carlos Bocanegra
  • Etc etc

How many of them had sauce?

How many of them made the rabona a regular part of their repertoire?

How many of them had a celebration that kids around the country tried to emulate?

How many of them would have done this to anyone?

A lot of people talk about the beautiful game. Dempsey made it happen.

The Texas native didn’t change who we are as a soccer nation. But he set a new bar for who we – American soccer players – could be. An American can go for the chip. An American can play like he doesn’t owe anything to anybody. An American can try things.

Go ahead, kid. Go for it.

There’s one concrete soccer concept that sums up Dempsey’s career. When you need a goal in a tough moment – when the game is a mess and the players are desperate and the whole cause looks lost – is there anyone else in the history of American men’s soccer you would have on the field?

Deuce was the bravest player the USMNT has ever seen – there was never a moment when Dempsey didn’t want the ball. He didn’t play well in every game he featured in, but he never shied away. And, ultimately, regardless of how he played that day or month or year, he was the one you wanted on the field to try to win the game. When everyone else got cagey, you knew Dempsey didn’t give a crap.

We build statues to athletes who achieved things on the field. We tell legends of the ones who changed the way we think moving forward. Dempsey opened doors for what Americans can do and how we can think about ourselves.

One day my kids will ask me about Dempsey. I’ll tell them about the chip against Juventus. They will smile, but not be amazed. Because they will have already tried it with their friends on the playground.

And we’ll have Clint Dempsey to thank for that.