Most professional athletes fight everyday to make it to tomorrow. They can never look past the next practice or the next game. Every second is a battle to stay relevant. The second they retire they become nothing more than a data point on a blogger’s spreadsheet.
Some athletes, however, get to think bigger.
It’s not a question of whether they will be remembered, but it's how they will be remembered.
Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley have reached such rarified air. They enter Saturday’s MLS Cup final (4 pm ET on ESPN, UniMas, TSN, TVAS) competing for more than a single trophy. They’re fighting for their place in history.
What have you done for me lately?
When you talk about cementing a spot in perpetuity, that discussion usually carries a hopeful tone. But it’s more complicated with these three American stars. They have complex data points that have them teetering on the edge of history’s jagged fence.
All three made big profile moves back to MLS. All three make more money than entire rosters of other teams in the league. All three have worn the armband for their country. All three, however, have yet to lead their respective MLS clubs to a league title.
Well, Clint Dempsey did claim a league winner's medal 12 months ago when the Seattle Sounders won 2016 MLS Cup, but he was on the sidelines due to a heart condition when the Sounders went on their memorable run. And in the eyes of many at the time, that championship stood as much as an indictment of Dempsey as it did an accomplishment.
It’s a bit harsh, but he’d surely be the first to admit this much: Elite athletes don’t want anything given; they want to claw their way through every obstacle and be on center stage. What does it mean if Seattle lose on Saturday with Dempsey on the field?
Altidore and Bradley, meanwhile, have a few domestic tournament titles (Canadian Championships and a Dutch Cup for Altidore), but they still don’t have a championship ring. They came up short in last year’s final, playing for the team with the highest budget in their home stadium in front of a capacity crowd.
And then there's the context of the USMNT's recent failing in World Cup Qualifying. All three players participated in the decisive Hex stage. I don’t need to remind you what happened.
Recency bias is part of sports and it sure feels like their career achievements of Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore have been overshadowed of late. When we do think back on their careers, what are those moments and memories that we will carry with us? What did they do in the big spots? In the elimination games?
It’s not to say their total body of work doesn’t warrant acclaim, but the most recent or the most memorable events attached to them will likely be the ones that wind up carrying the most weight. It’s in no way a fair part of life, but legacies are often measured by it.
In search of that defining moment
It’s a strange conversation to debate someone’s legacy. To even discuss a player’s legacy is a statement in itself. Nobody is talking about Bobby Warshaw’s legacy as a player.
Dempsey (34), Bradley (30) and Altidore (28) also likely have a couple more years to play, which means they still have time to shape the narrative and they could yet have more opportunities to leave a lasting impression. Seattle and Toronto will certainly continue to be contenders over the next few years. And despite the current alarmism in US Soccer circles, Bradley and Altidore will also likely be a part of the next World Cup cycle.
So the lasting legacies of all three are not necessarily on the line at 2017 MLS Cup. Those will still have time to take shape as our memories and recollection of emotions crystalize. We would be victims of the moment to suggest otherwise.
But that's not to minimize the moment awaiting them on Saturday. Rather than convincing us, 2017 MLS Cup is about convincing themselves.
Few elite players think of themselves as having anything other than a winning mentality. Even if a player realistically doesn’t, thinking you do is half the battle. In fact it's the most important battle for any professional athlete: How you perceive yourself and fight the demons and doubt in your own mind.
Every player has two faces: the one they wear out in public, and the one they assume in the quiet moments of their own lives. For whatever you think of Dempsey, Bradley, and Altidore, they have their own accounts of their lives and careers. The stories they tell about themselves are much more powerful than any that the public weaves. When athletes lose, it surely stings to read negative comments. But it’s nothing compared to the doubts they cast on themselves.
How could I let that happen? Why couldn’t I get it done? Who am I that I allowed that to happen?
You can’t hide from results forever. There’s a constant scorecard in a player's brain. They take a mental note if they've won, whether it's during practice or an official match. And naturally the biggest matches carry the most weight. If you think of yourself as a winner, how many times can you suffer a devastating defeat before you start to question yourself?
A single game clearly doesn’t define a player's career. There’s always tomorrow to make a new statement. But a single game can impact the next game and the each subsequent game after that.
Dempsey, Altidore, and Bradley are three players with more heartbreaking losses of late than momentous wins. Nobody knows that more than them, which raises Saturday's stakes that much higher.
Bobby Warshaw is a former professional player who played in MLS (2011-2013) and in Scandinavia after an accomplished college career at Stanford. A columnist and podcast host for Howler magazine, Warshaw is a published author and has also appeared on ExtraTime Live and ExtraTime Radio.