Considering where he is now, it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago it wasn’t even certain that Clint Dempsey would ever play professional soccer again. There had been promising statements from the Sounders about Dempsey’s treatment for an irregular heartbeat during the second half of 2016, but nothing was certain until just before the 2017 season started. But it’s safe to say that he’s put all that behind him since the season started a few weeks ago. Two goals in four matches for the Sounders and four goals in two matches for the USMNT will do that.
Dempsey was only able to contribute as a substitute in the second half of the Sounders’ 0-0 draw with Atlanta United last weekend, but his influence was immediate and obvious. He didn’t manage to score, like he had in the Sounders’ rampant 3-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls, but Dempsey isn’t too worried. “It was fun to be out there, obviously we would have liked to win the game, had we scored the one that came off the post, but we’re looking to get back to the performance we had against the Red Bulls where we’re netting a few.”
With things like travel and injuries getting in the way against Atlanta, the Sounders struggled to find their footing in the attack, even though they earned their first clean sheet of the season. “Unfortunately we had the international break, it was difficult for everybody to get back on the field again after such a quick turnaround with them scheduling a game on Friday.” Dempsey said that it’s better to look at the win over the Red Bulls as an indicator of what the Sounders are capable of at the other end of the pitch. “I think this team has a lot of depth. I think the best is still yet to come. I think we saw a little of that against the Red Bulls when we had three goals.”
On a more personal level, Dempsey said that he’s still improving, and his form with the national team has boosted his confidence. “I feel like I’m progressing, getting more comfortable being on the pitch. I think when you’re confident, you express yourself even more.” Games like the one against Atlanta are tough, Dempsey said, because “different games have different rhythms.” The travel and quick turnaround time from his international duty didn’t help, but he doesn’t use that as an excuse. “[I was] just trying to do everything I could to make sure I was ready, if I was called upon so that if I get into the game I could make an impact.”
The Sounders’ match on Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes is at Avaya Stadium, the same location of the USA’s 6-0 victory over Honduras in which Dempsey scored his hat trick. “Looking forward to being back there, we played some games there now and it’s a good stadium, nice pitch. Any time you can play on nice pitches, you’re happy.”
It helps that Avaya was the stage of what many saw as an epic comeback game for the man who is now just one goal short of the all-time USA scoring record. Not one to brag, Dempsey said it was just an honor to be able to represent his country again. “It’s always great to wear the jersey for the States, it’s what I always dreamed about as a kid. It’s always something that’s been an honor for me, that never changes.” He said he’s obviously aware of where he stands in the record books, but he maintains that it’s not the first thing he thinks about when he dons the jersey for his country. “Yeah, I mean it’s something that’s there but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is qualifying for the World Cup.”
It’s all but certain that Dempsey will start for the Sounders in San Jose this weekend, as the Sounders try to get back to winning ways. Dempsey admitted that his international matches had a bit more of an edge, because of what was at stake. “When you’re playing internationally in World Cup qualifiers, there’s a little bit of extra incentive there, it’s win or go home.” But this doesn’t mean he takes his appearances with the Sounders any less seriously. “Whereas in MLS at this stage of the season, everybody’s still building. Every team is not at it’s peak, you don’t want to hit your peak until later in the season.”
It might be cliché, but it really is a marathon in MLS, rather than a sprint. The Sounders, just like Dempsey, are in good form, but they have lots of room to improve. If they can combine the creativity and attack they showed against the Red Bulls with the stout defense they displayed against Atlanta, the Sounders could peak as one of the best teams in the league.
Additional reporting by Jeremiah Oshan.