Boehm: Who is the US national team’s greatest of all time?

Clint Dempsey is being showered with plaudits in the wake of his World Cup qualifying hat-trick heroics against Honduras – which he followed up with a clutch strike vs. Panama – and rightly so.

After “Deuce” bagged his 53rd, 54th and 55th career US national team goals (and he's now up to 56) in emphatic fashion on Friday, ESPNFC’s Doug McIntyre laid out the case for the Seattle Sounders star being the greatest player in USMNT history, pushing him ahead of Landon Donovan and anyone else remotely worthy of the honorific.

“For now at least,” writes McIntyre, “Dempsey is the American player against whom all others ought to be judged.”

But is it really so?

Both Dempsey and Donovan have racked up exceedingly gaudy statistics for both club and country. Both have played in multiple World Cups, and scored multiple goals while there. Both lifted their teams – especially the ones they shared – to heights that would’ve been unimaginable without them, by virtue of both what they did and who they are.

We haven’t even mentioned other leading candidates for the GOAT label, of which there are several, like Claudio Reyna or Brad Friedel. Or the dark horses, like Brian McBride or Kasey Keller or Tab Ramos. Many of those suffer from the effects of recency bias, too, with the game’s explosive growth in this country taking us across so many new boundaries and drawing so many new fans.

This is quite easily the deepest, longest and most contentious wormhole of a discussion any group of hardcore US soccer fans could ever hope to stumble down. I myself spent most of an afternoon comparing stats, weighing milestones and harking back to as many big USMNT moments of this century as I can remember, desperately hunting for a definitive nugget to prove or disprove Doug’s contention.

As someone old enough to remember Reyna’s unflappable ability to set the rhythm for the Yanks' midfield year after year – to “bring peace to the game,” as his longtime teammate Earnie Stewart said – I’m sorely tempted to handicap the North Jersey metronome up to the top of the heap.

Bear in mind here what a strong club career he built in major European leagues, and how limited many of his US teams were compared to more talented contemporary editions. Reyna remains one of only two US players, and the only one in the modern era, to earn a spot on a FIFA World Cup All-Star Team (now known as the Dream Team) thanks to his exploits at Korea/Japan 2002.

Yet Dempsey and Donovan’s gifts and resumes are just the slightest bit gaudier, their career highlights unfolding on slightly bigger stages. Reyna had the desperately poor luck to miss out on one World Cup (1994) due to an ill-timed injury, while his legacy was inevitably dinged by a subpar swan song in the 2006 Mundial.

So which one is tops, then: LD or Deuce?

I’m sorry. This is impossible.

It’s just not how this sport works – at least, not during this particular window in the history of American soccer. If you’ve ever taken part in a “Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo” debate, or the seemingly eternal “Pele vs. Maradona” argument, you should sooner or later recognize the similar metaphysical limitations at work here.

Without Donovan, there is no Dempsey. A rising star in US Soccer’s firmament practically since puberty, LD burst onto the scene with performances at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup (and not long after, the 2002 World Cup) that hammered widely-held global stereotypes about the haplessness of Yanks in the beautiful game.

When he decided to call time on his European adventure at Bayer Leverkusen and play in MLS, Donovan willingly acceded to becoming the face of the league, its golden child, accepting all the burdens that came with it. In doing so he helped safeguard MLS’s future, carving out a space for those who followed after.

There was a cost, of course. Given that he possessed the skillset to make his name in one of the world’s most renowned leagues, some – including many wowed by the latest such prodigy, Christian Pulisic – will never understand or accept why LD didn’t make that his mission in life.

Conversely, Dempsey’s rise eased Donovan’s task. Deuce had to fight his way into the spotlight from the obscurity of East Texas, climbing a lengthy ladder from the Dallas youth scene to Furman University and on to the New England Revolution and Fulham FC.

Hustling with the frantic intensity of someone who hears a clock constantly ticking over his head, Dempsey never took a sabbatical and never second-guessed his own desire or focus. While LD wore his self-awareness on his sleeve, Deuce drew across a curtain, mostly keeping his innermost self out of the spotlight.

It’s more than a happenstance of position or tactics that Donovan finished his international career with more assists than goals, or that Dempsey is on pace to shatter the latter mark but remains miles short of the former. They’re just different animals, who tap into different segments of our collective American soccer psyche. 

So by all means – pour yourself and a few friends some refreshments and bat this one around for a while. Vote in our poll below. But don't forget that your answer to this debate probably says more about who you are than where Donovan and Dempsey really stack up.

Clint Dempsey   Landon Donovan
132 USMNT CAPS 156
56 GOALS 57
17 ASSISTS 58
38 WCQ GAMES 40
18 WCQ GOALS 12
0 WCQ ASSISTS 21
10 WORLD CUP GAMES 12
4 WORLD CUP GOALS 5
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