Clint Dempsey’s legacy seems secure, regardless of what happens on Saturday. The discussions about the greatest player in American men’s soccer player are unlikely to be swayed either way. The debate about whether or not it was a good move for him to return to MLS will rage on.
I’d like to think that Dempsey has shown that the Sounders are, at the very least, more dangerous with him than they are without, most other things being equal. But those who doubt that are unlikely to be swayed by one more game.
What this MLS Cup final represents for Dempsey, then, is something less profound. It is simply “another big game.”
Unconcerned as Dempsey may outwardly be with his own legacy, he does seem to care about how he performs on stages like this. Dempsey has said time and time again that how he performs in big games and in big moments is how he measures himself. This might not be the biggest game he’s played in, but it’s undeniably his most important club match since at least the 2010 Europa League final. You could argue that, simply based on how much the league has grown, that it’s bigger even than either of his previous MLS Cup appearances (2005-06) as well.
Just looking at Dempsey’s Sounders career, these are the games he’s often been at his best. While 2014 is often remembered as the year the Sounders fell short in the most frustrating way possible, it was Dempsey’s goal against the LA Galaxy that at least temporarily gave Seattle the lead. That year, he also bagged the extra-time winner in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Dempsey scored again against the Galaxy in 2015, helping the Sounders to finally get over that hurdle and also added a goal in the following round against FC Dallas (the Sounders ultimately lost in penalties, but Dempsey converted his).
That Dempsey missed the 2016 postseason only seems to have served to boost his resolve during this campaign. Despite missing the first game due to suspension, and being limited to fewer than 200 minutes in the other three games, Dempsey has managed to score three more goals.
Dempsey hasn’t dominated any of the three games in which he’s appeared, but he’s been a constant force. Being freed up from much of the playmaking responsibilities he’s often needed to shoulder has allowed Dempsey to crash the box with greater abandon. Seemingly every time a balls goes into the box, it’s either intended for Dempsey, or he’s lurking in the area ready to pounce on the opportunity. Perhaps that’s a result of having increased confidence in his teammates, knowing that there are multiple players who can find the runs he’s so adept at making. That may also help explain why he seems to be playing with so much joy these days.
The version of Dempsey we’ve been seeing may not be the objective best. We don’t even need to look beyond his Sounders career to find better ones. But we are seeing a player who’s starting to strip his game of unnecessary parts in order to better accentuate the things he truly excels at. Right now, that’s scoring goals. In a big game like this, it might be the most important thing he can do.