He’s on the cusp of American soccer immortality — a label bestowed upon an elite group of players who’ve represented the Stars and Stripes.
For most, Landon Donovan still tops the select billing of Americans who’ve posted phenomenal numbers while representing the US on the biggest stage. He might have cemented his place atop that list if Jurgen Klinsmann hadn’t botched his 2014 World Cup selections, inexplicably leaving Donovan at home.
But Klinsmann did. And Donovan, while an undisputed icon, didn’t get the chance to cement his place as the greatest American to ever put on a US jersey.
Three years later, Dempsey soon will become his country’s all-time leading scorer, passing his ex-teammate when he scores his 58th international goal.
Whether he finds it in Wednesday night’s Gold Cup final (9:30 pm ET on FS1, Univision and TSN), or in the looming World Cup qualifiers in September, it doesn’t matter. Dempsey’s already ticked every box on the G.O.A.T. checklist while accomplishing as much as or arguably more than – both individually and collectively – any American before him.
In addition to achieving the all-time goals mark, Dempsey’s 136 caps place him third on the all-time appearances list (Cobi Jones is No. 1 with 164). He’s also scored big goals in big tournaments.
Most significant, Dempsey’s four World Cup goals are second all-time to Donovan (5), though Deuce could appear at a fourth World Cup next summer.
But whether he does or doesn’t play in Russia, Dempsey’s legacy shouldn’t be defined solely by goals or big moments that will live on in US soccer lore.
Rather, it’s about taking the road less traveled — a well-documented rags-to-riches soccer tale that, in many ways, embodies the American Dream.
That unconventional path spawned an unconventional American soccer player who, as U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena once said, just “tries s***.” It was a simple two-word quote that should be carved into Dempsey’s future Hall of Fame name plate, given how well it defines his uniqueness.
On top of the grit and determination that defines American internationals, Dempsey’s always had a few extra tools in his shed. The audacity to use them — without fear or reservation — ultimately is what sets the 34-year-old apart from every other American striker.
It’s a style that’s borderline arrogant until you hear Dempsey explain it. Then you realize it’s merely a byproduct of his humble beginnings in East Texas, where he grew up in a trailer in his grandparents' backyard. It included matches against grown men in the local Hispanic leagues and six-hour roundtrip drives to practices.
He’s a US soccer star who reached his potential, a player who did it his own way and won’t have regrets when he features in his final international fixture.
Like Dempsey, the great ones don’t look back and wonder what might have been. They leave little debate as to whether they could have gone further.
That’s Dempsey — an all-time great whose all-time career should be defined just as much by his journey and personality and penchant for the head-turning play or pass or goal as it should by the numbers that ultimately could lead us to categorize him as the greatest ever to don an American soccer jersey.
Kurt Larson covers Toronto FC and international soccer for the Toronto Sun and Postmedia in Canada.