There are many ways to end a career. You can chase it, past your prime, off in a new city, like Jerry Rice, Franco Harris or Willie Mays.
You can, if you’re lucky, end on a run of glory. Win that last championship, like John Elway.
And then there’s another way, a way we’ve seen great Seattle athletes walk away before. Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr. Quietly, low key, in a familiar place when the time is right for him. Clint Dempsey did that on Wednesday, retiring with nearly a third of the season left to play but having played just once since July 7. It was clearly the right time for him. For Seattle fans left wondering what was left, and if he had another run in him, it’s bittersweet.
As with his local baseball brethren, he is a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame player. If retired numbers weren’t so rare in soccer his “2” would hang in the rafters of CenturyLink Field — it might anyway.
When the Seattle Sounders joined MLS, there was a short list of dream players that Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer had in mind. Two of their earliest signings were on that list. Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller came to Seattle knowing that their careers were almost certainly in the final act. Both were openly retired from their national teams and wouldn’t play in another World Cup. Keller’s career ended in Seattle with a quad-save, his hero’s journey finishing in final glory. Ljungberg chose the path of Jordan, refusing to give up while hanging on to a history that he could no longer approach; his final professional games played in India four years after he left the Sounders.
Roth still had a list of dreams. In 2013 one of those dreams came true. Deuce wanted to leave the EPL and Tottenham. He wanted to return to the United States. He told MLS there were only three places he would accept going — Toronto, the Galaxy or Seattle.
Clint fell in love with Seattle during a World Cup Qualifier. No one believed he would sign here, until he did. His reveal wasn’t nearly as impressive as Hollywood producer Roth likely envisioned, but it was still special.
The transition back to MLS took a bit. Dempsey’s fit into the team in 2013 was imperfect. In 2014 things changed. His relationship with Obafemi Martins, at least on the field, was perfect. The two were simpatico. The drift compatible partnership won an Open Cup, a Supporters’ Shield, and — in Sounders tradition — bombed out of the playoffs.
The next season continued that joy of Clinfemi. Untying them for those two years is impossible. Their obvious joy spilled into the stands and throughout the team. 2015 ended, as was Seattle tradition, by bombing out of the playoffs.
This wasn’t the first year that Dempsey’s future was in doubt. Back in 2016, shortly after the Sounders lost their only coach to that point, Dempsey took two giant steps away from soccer due to a heart condition. Inexplicably the Seattle Sounders went on to win the title. Dempsey was at the MLS Cup final, at the parade, and back in the late winter, proving that his soul was still with the Sounders and his future was still with soccer.
Taking home a comeback player of the year award and bossing the playoffs like few MLS players ever have, Clint Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders returned to the MLS Cup in 2017, this time losing.
This history, which you already know, is important. It is a third of a glorious career. The final act of the three-act play. Deuce’s legend had to include an MLS Cup title and a personal award. It had to include glory, because that’s the way myths are written.
If Wednesday’s announcement was a Hollywood story, Clint would retire after another goal, another trophy. The announcement wasn’t written by Hollywood. It was written by reality.
Reality can suck. Athletes age. They get old much younger than we do. Some get to choose how they go out. Those choices can be poor and they can be grand. In Dempsey’s case he’s leaving in a way that is appropriate for the region he calls home.
Deuce is just walking away — no glory and little fanfare. In the short term our memories will be of the shot off the post. That memory will fade. Our lasting memories will be of goal celebration handshakes, a gruff looking mountain man in a hoodie mocking Portland, and the greatest American soccer player of all time raising a scarf above his head proclaiming his time with the Sounders would begin.
It’s time to go fishing, Clint. The time for scoring goals is over. We have thousands of rivers and hundreds of lakes for you to drop your rod and line. You’ll dominate the fields and streams as you did the grass and turf. There will be new legends, told around campfires and cooking stoves.
You’ve left us with a story that none in American soccer thought was possible. It is a tale of success on every stage. Rave Green will be imprinted on the Dempsey myth and our thousands of voices will echo with those from Tottenham, Fulham, New England, Nacogdoches and the United States. There’s only one Deuce. Thanks for sharing part of that with Seattle.