With the United States needing a goal to secure a spot in the World Cup, it somehow made sense that it was Clint Dempsey who came closest to scoring it. The width of the goalpost was all the separated Dempsey from scoring a record-breaking goal when his country needed it most.
In some other universe, Dempsey’s left-footed shot skips off the wet grass, goalkeeper Adrian Foncette doesn’t get a hand on it and the ball nestles into the side netting. At the same time, Dempsey passes Landon Donovan on the USMNT’s all-time scoring list, and the USA advances to its eighth straight World Cup. Dempsey likely retires from the national team shortly thereafter and goes down as arguably the greatest player in the program’s history.
In our universe, however, the narrative is not nearly so neat. Rather than riding off as a legend, Dempsey trudged off the field as part of the program’s biggest-ever failure. We don’t know for sure if that was the last time he’ll suit up for the USA, but it was almost certainly the last time he’ll play in a meaningful international match. Dempsey will be 36 when the the qualification rounds start for the 2022 World Cup, and even if he’s still playing club soccer at a reasonably high level — hardly a given — it seems unthinkable that he’d be called in for those matches.
More interesting is the question of if he’s played his last game for the Stars and Stripes. Some may see it as selfish, but giving Dempsey another chance or two to pass Donovan doesn’t seem out of the question. More than the record, it would give Dempsey the chance to close out his international career under less ignominious circumstances.
Then again, if we’re to take Dempsey at his word that the scoring record isn’t really that important to him, he might not see much value in playing in what amounts to meaningless friendlies. It’s entirely possible he could see playing in those games as somehow worse than walking away now.
How this affects his club career is an even more complex question. The short-term seems obvious enough: Dempsey is probably as motivated as ever to win the MLS Cup. That can only be a good thing, especially given his recent form with the Sounders. If there’s one thing Dempsey seems perfectly capable of doing it’s at least temporarily putting aside this disappointment and focusing on the next goal.
Beyond this year, though, it’s less clear. There’s been plenty of speculation that Dempsey’s primary interest in continuing to play was due to the 2018 World Cup. Take away that silver ring and there’s no reason to come back, or so that sort of thinking goes. But any thoughts about Dempsey’s motivation being solely about playing in a fourth World Cup are just speculation. As of yet, there’s no reason to think Dempsey is now suddenly ready to retire.
Whether or not the Sounders should be the ones to bring him back is another question. It should be said that Dempsey is scoring at almost exactly the same rate this year as he has in the rest of his Sounders career (.50 goals per 90 in 2017 vs. .51 g/90 from 2013-16) and the degree to which he’s fallen off has been mostly overstated. Dempsey may not be quite as dynamic as he once was, but he’s still producing at a solid clip and capable of brilliance.
The decision to bring him back will be more about how ready the Sounders are to move onto their next phase, rather than how effective they think Dempsey can be. My suspicion is the Sounders aren’t quite ready to cut ties yet, given the lack of rumors about a potential replacement and the fact that a decision will need to be made almost immediately after this season ends.
It’s a shame that we’re even talking in these terms. Dempsey’s shot goes in and the conversation is about his national team renaissance. The USA doesn’t play uninspired soccer for a half, and Dempsey’s heroics wouldn’t have even been needed. At least as far as his international career goes, the best we can hope for is a less unhappy ending.