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Clint Dempsey writes his name in ink on USMNT lineup sheet

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And if he keeps playing like this, it’s going to stay that way through Russia 2018.

Soccer: Men's World Cup Soccer Qualifier-Honduras at USA Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

No player in United States soccer history has demanded as much attention as Clint Dempsey. Whether it’s on the field where teams invariably have to be built around him or off the field where seemingly every marketing campaign puts him front and center, the team’s style has been closely linked to Dempsey basically ever since he scored his first World Cup goal in 2006.

As you might imagine, this has had its pluses and minuses. On one hand, Dempsey has come through in big games over and over again while leading the United States to some impressive finishes in big tournaments. On the other, the team seems completely lost when he’s either not around or simply off his game.

It’s a good thing, then, that Dempsey is at least proving capable of holding up his end as the United States continues its quest for an eighth-straight World Cup berth when they face Panama tonight.

His hat trick on Friday — helping salvage the United States’ hopes of an eighth straight — didn’t just show observers that he’s fully back from his nearly seven-month long hiatus. It also served as a reminder that for all the talk of new players taking on bigger roles, Dempsey has continued to be the team’s most reliable scorer.

Dempsey’s three goals against Honduras give him seven goals in his past 10 national team appearances. Among those are the three he scored during the run to the Copa America Centenario semifinals, a tournament at which he was by a long shot the team’s best offensive player. Going even further back, Dempsey has 16 goals in his last 20 USMNT appearances. Remarkably, it’s almost as if he knew that to catch Landon Donovan for the all-time USMNT scoring record that he’d have to pick up the pace.

Clint Dempsey is back

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When Dempsey turned 30 back on March 9, 2013, catching Donovan seemed like a stretch. He was 26 shy of Donovan and his future with the USMNT seemed uncertain. While he was still a very important part of the United States’ ongoing campaign, the prospects of him being back for Russia 2018 as a 35-year-old seemed remote, at best.

Instead, he’s put together his most impressive USMNT scoring run. Since his 30th birthday, Dempsey has scored at a rate of .6 goals per appearance. Up until then, he had posted a scoring rate of .34 per appearance for the national team.

Even after missing six months of competitive action with an irregular heartbeat and going about nine months between USMNT appearances, Dempsey turned in arguably his best ever performance while scoring his second career USMNT hat trick. Each goal offered something we’d seen of him at various points, but never all in the same game. The first goal was a mix of determination and skill, as he fought through a defender who was literally hanging on him to lace a shot into the upper corner of the goal. His second came off a beautiful feed that allowed him to calmly round the keeper and slot it away easily. The third goal was a free kick from an impossible angle, his first such goal in a USA uniform.

What was especially encouraging, though, was that as good as Dempsey was, he wasn’t the United States’ best player on the day. That honor belonged to Cristian Pulisic, who assisted on Dempsey’s first two goals, helped set up the game’s opening tally and scored a goal himself.

One of the knocks on Dempsey throughout his career has been a certain unwillingness to defer. Part of why so many have doubted his ability to stick with the national team as age has invariably caught up with him is that he’s never been a role player, someone asked to just perform a specific task. He freelances, he roams, he disrupts not just opposing defense but his own offense at times.

Aside from scoring all those goals against Honduras, Dempsey also displayed a willingness to get out of the way, to stay high, to wait for the game to come to him. Maybe that’s because he sees talent in someone like Pulisic that he has simply never seen on the national team, someone worthy of deferential treatment. (Interestingly enough, we’ve seen some of the same tendencies in his return to the Seattle Sounders where Nicolas Lodeiro has filled a similar role as Pulisic.)

Either way, we saw a Dempsey who can still fill a need for the national team. At least for the remainder of this cycle, you can expect him to continue to get the call.