Wiebe: Five years on, a look at Clint Dempsey's legacy in Seattle

Editor's Note

June 29 marked five years since Clint Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders, returning to MLS and putting a memorable capper on his club career. On the occasion, Andrew Wiebe took a look back at the impact of that second MLS run. With news of Dempsey's retirement breaking Wednesday, we present it below.
—Ben Couch, Senior Editor (Aug. 30, 2018)

Clint Dempsey seems perfectly comfortable with his place in history.

When you’ve scored in three World Cups, blazed a trail the size of Texas through the English Premier League, sit (tied) atop your national team’s all-time scoring chart and made a successful comeback from a potentially career-ending heart issue, you don’t need someone else’s perspective.

“I’m at peace with what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Dempsey said last December, in the days before the Seattle Sounders lost MLS Cup 2017, and I believe him.

He scored his first MLS goal since that interview on June 23, a sliding finish at CenturyLink Field that gave Seattle a hum-drum draw against Chicago in the midst of a season that until recently tested the patience of the Rave Green faithful. It was the 35-year-old’s 47th regular-season goal for the Sounders, tying Fredy Montero for the club record.

It’s been almost more than five years since Dempsey arrived in Seattle. Five years is a long time. Long enough to win a few trophies. Long enough to play in and miss a World Cup. Long enough to become the second-longest tenured Sounder behind MLS original Ozzie Alonso.

Long enough for us to wonder how will he be remembered in the Pacific Northwest once now that the time feels right to trade the daily grind of professional soccer for family time and fishing.

I’m no Sounders fan. And I’m damn sure not Clint Dempsey. I won’t claim to know or understand how either feels. But I do know which moments I remember most vividly from Dempsey’s time in Seattle.

#DempseyWatch

Years before #BarcoWatch took over Soccer Twitter™, #DempseyWatch helped coin the genre.

MLS is a much different league now than it was in Summer 2013, when word started trickling out that the US national team star’s time with Tottenham could be coming to an end, a return stateside with the Sounders the likely next destination. It was by far the biggest story in American soccer that summer.

As the rumors heated up, photos of Dempsey at various airports trickled into the social media conversation. Sounders sleuths tracked his movement from Heathrow Airport in London to the West Coast. By the time Dempsey removed his hoodie to reveal a Seattle jersey at halftime of a blowout victory against FC Dallas on August 3 of that year, the club had inked their new star to a deal that made him the highest paid player and biggest incoming transfer in MLS history.

There was elation, from Sounders fans in particular, but there was also serious blowback, from the internet trolls all the way up to Jurgen Klinsmann. A top-tier player, arguably the country's most accomplished in Europe, returning to MLS in his prime? One year before the World Cup no less?

That decision, just as much as the goals he’d go on to score, is part of Dempsey’s legacy. When he signed that contract, the trajectory and perception of the league changed.

For MLS, Dempsey was the personification of the “league of choice” mantra. If he could do it, why couldn’t others like him? His signing provided precedent for the moves that followed, bringing the biggest USMNT stars – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Alejandro Bedoya – to MLS from Europe.

For Seattle, Dempsey represented raw ambition. Along with Obafemi Martins, signed earlier that year, the more than $30 million outlay, according to reports, showed a desire not just be among MLS’s biggest spenders in but at the very top of the hierarchy. That the Sounders were the club to pull it off only reinforced the growing sentiment that there was an MLS super club in the Pacific Northwest, a giant both on the field and off.

I remember being thrilled by the transfer coup, and a bit gob-smacked as well. No more setting alarms to watch Deuce do his thing in England. American soccer fans could watch the national team’s biggest star every week in person.

Oba-Deuce

Trust me, you should watch this goal. And this one. And this one. For sure this one, too.

These are among the many masterpieces of Oba-Deuce, the sort of attacking partnership that left spectators and opposing defenders slack jawed just about every time they took the field.

These goals are everything Dempsey came to represent in Seattle during his first two full seasons. Every time he took the field, there was buzz. There was anticipation. There was the possibility that, with or without Martins’ assistance, he’d do something we’d never seen before.

There was plenty of success, too. That fourth goal I told you to watch? It was the game-winner in extra time of the 2014 U.S. Open Cup. That same year, the Sounders lifted the Supporters’ Shield, a fitting tribute to the folks who packed CenturyLink and made it all possible.

Above all, there was swagger, a brash confidence unique to Dempsey. Don’t drag me, he seemed to be saying to those who doubted him or his decision to return. I make the big bucks, and I’m worth every penny.

Then he brought that same swagger to the 2014 World Cup while repping the Sounders and Seattle.

Tear it all down

We remember the goals, but we also remember the outbursts. Dempsey has a knack for delivering spectacularly on both fronts.

The only three red cards of his MLS career have come, one per season, over the last three years. Before that, however, is the moment that will stick with me forever.

There’s not much I can say about this one. You’ll just have to watch it. It will almost certainly be the first and only time you’ll see a referee’s notebook ripped to shreds on the field.

Can't Tell Me Nothing

Dempsey did not play in MLS Cup 2016, his heart condition forcing him to watch from the stands as Seattle put together a historic run to the playoffs and then eked out the only domestic championship to elude them.

Never one to go missing in the big moment, Dempsey made his mark during the club’s victory parade a few days later. 

“Now that we've won one,” Dempsey said, “Portland can't say [drawn out expletive].”

The Cascadia rivalry matters to Sounders supporters, and it matters to Dempsey. He’s saved his best for the rivalry games, scoring nine goals (three game-winners) in 11 games.

I’ll leave you with this, Dempsey’s three-goal outburst in April 2014 to snatch a sure victory from the Timbers’ grasp:

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