You’ve heard the old saw about Clint Dempsey a thousand times by now, the one handed down to us by the grizzled Bruce Arena, a testament to the ingenuity and bravery of the stone-faced striker from Texas: “He tries sh*t.” As far as three-word descriptors go, it’s a moving compliment, and an apt phrase for a one-of-a-kind player in the annals of American soccer.
But it actually obscures an important truth about Dempsey: The famously unpredictable attacker is actually pretty reliable, especially when it comes to big moments.
Thursday night, Dempsey's brace led Seattle to an Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal victory against Vancouver. He raised his career postseason tallies to 6 goals and 3 assists in 7 career MLS playoff campaigns, alongside his already-sterling 71 and 41 in 172 career regular-season games. Few players in the league have earned more of a right to be trusted when a goal absolutely, positively has to be dug out, as was the case for the Sounders in Leg 2 of that continuously cagey series.
Dempsey is 34 now, and he remains the most dependable performer in the clutch for both club and country, despite months – maybe years – of talk about his advancing years and aging legs and the awkward questions facing him and the Sounders as that historic Designated Player contract of his winds towards its end.
The litany is even familiar to us: His future is uncertain. He might have to accept a supersub role. This is really Nico Lodeiro’s team now. His club finally won the big one last year – without him, thanks to that heart condition that raised the specter of forced retirement, however briefly. His US national team failed to qualify for Russia 2018 in the most humiliating fashion imaginable. And of course, he’s not getting any younger.
ESPNFC’s headline blared out the encapsulated version this week: “Time is running out for Clint Dempsey to make his mark in MLS Cup playoffs.”
This isn’t actually a new phenomenon for the kid who honed his cheeky, swaggering style of play on the hardscrabble, sun-baked fields and trailer-park driveways of East Texas. He’s spoken vividly over the years of the race against time, the urgency of being the one at the periphery, a clock over his shoulder as he hustles to get noticed, hustles to prove that he’s worth the spot, hustles to stay king of the hill in the face of relentless competition and advancing age.
From Nacogdoches to Furman to New England to Fulham to Tottenham to Puget Sound, with memorable diversions to Germany and South Africa and Brazil. Roaming the right flank in midfield, leading the line, drifting in the hole, in and out of his preferred position, in and out of the starting XI.
Somehow he’s gotten his hands on nearly everything his childhood self could’ve dreamed of and more, and still retains that restless, furtive, slightly angry aura – still the outsider, even as a million-dollar man. Even with a championship ring sitting on the desktop at home.
“He didn’t get to be a part of the run to the MLS Cup last year, one that you can tell just hurt him, and one that he didn’t really feel was his,” said former USMNT colleague Stu Holden during the final moments of Thursday’s FS1 broadcast. “So he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, wanting to make sure he leads this team to back-to-back championships.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer boiled it down a bit further.
“He's been through a lot. And he's hungry. He's hungry.”
Packed with talent, but somehow still lacking in killer instinct, Seattle let the Whitecaps hang around in this series far longer than they deserved to. Showing precious little ambition or attacking cohesion, Vancouver rarely seemed threatening to the defending champs, but they remained unbowed as the minutes ticked away in Leg 2, dustily defiant like a bloodied bull trotting around the ring.
Seattle needed a closer, a matador. And no one else in the building can do the job like Deuce.
As our own Sam Stejskal reported earlier this season, the Sounders have an option year on Dempsey in 2018. They may check that box enthusiastically, or perhaps might try to talk him down to a smaller, more budget-friendly salary number. Some have even raised the possibility of him calling time on his career altogether – though that prospect seemed distant, even faintly ludicrous under the rainy Seattle skies on Thursday, as he yet again did what he does best.
“While they’ve been in negotiations, we were told yesterday by Seattle that they have 'a warm, fuzzy feeling' about him coming back next year,” noted Holden, “which makes it seem – and we know they’ve been in advanced discussions – but that Clint Dempsey will be back here next season. At what number, we do not know, but that is good news and he’s certainly proving his worth, yet again, to this franchise.
“When you need him, he has turned up.”
There’s hardly anyone like Deuce – in MLS, in a Sounders uniform, in US soccer history. And it hardly seems like he’s done making noise.
Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.