Clint Dempsey's USA career comes full circle with hat trick in return

SAN JOSE, Calif. – After a nine-month absence from international play, Clint Dempsey gave birth to another bit of legend for his US national team resume.

Making his first appearance in a US jersey since an irregular heartbeat sidelined him for the second half of 2016, Dempsey recorded his second career hat trick for the Americans, highlighting their 6-0 romp against Honduras on Friday at Avaya Stadium.

The goals brought Dempsey’s career total as a US player to 55, putting him just two away from tying Landon Donovan’s all-time record and extinguishing any concerns of whether the just-turned-34-year-old can get back to the level that made him for so long one of the Americans’ most irreplaceable pieces.

“He’s a beast,” US midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “What can you say about him? I’m so happy he’s healthy. ... Those goals were unbelievable.”

Indeed, perhaps the most challenging aspect of Dempsey’s night might have been picking which goal was his favorite. Was it the scintillating free kick in the 54th minute (watch above), which dipped over the wall before eluding Donis Escober’s desperate dive? Or the dribble-and-fire maneuver – set up by a perfectly weighted ball from Christian Pulisic – that left Escober sliding helplessly while Dempsey tucked his shot inside the near post?

For sheer strength, there was only one answer: Dempsey’s first tally, a 32nd-minute half-volley slotted behind Escober despite the fact that Honduran defender Henry Figueroa was draped all over Dempsey’s left arm, yanking with both hands in an attempt to upset the balance of a man who, in this must-win situation, would not be denied.

It spoke to the determination of Dempsey, who admitted to reporters after the game that he had harbored doubts about his international future while laboring to come back from the heart issue.

“For sure, there’s always the possibility that you’re not going to be able to come back to be at that level,” Dempsey said. “It was a tough process going through that and not really knowing. … You’re just grateful for every day, grateful for every game that you get to play in because you never know when it’s going to be taken from you.”

Dempsey had been saying in recent weeks that 90 minutes at this level was unlikely. But when Arena saw how well Dempsey recovered from playing Sunday afternoon with Seattle to train Monday with the US, the decision to start him was sealed.

“Watching Clint, from game 1 to game 2 to game 3 in Seattle, it was impressive, the way he kept improving,” Arena said. After Monday’s training, “I said, ‘he’s got to play.’”

Dempsey responded with a clutch performance that was badly needed by a US squad buffeted by opening the Hex with a pair of losses, and served as a warm welcome to the coach who gave Dempsey his start at the international level.

“I owe a lot to Bruce,” Dempsey said. “He’s the one that first brought me in with the national team, gave me the opportunity to play in World Cup qualifying games, play in the World Cup, get a goal in the World Cup. That was a dream come true for me. So it’s great to come full circle again.”

Given how good Dempsey looked, the question had to be asked: If the US is successful at qualifying for Russia, could there be a fourth World Cup trip in the offing for the Texan?

“Well, it’d be awesome,” Dempsey said. “It’s one thing to say it, another thing to do it. You’ve got to stay relevant. You’ve got to stay producing. I can’t just say it and that’s going to happen. I have to be on the field and do it.”