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Trying to understand Clint Dempsey’s sudden retirement

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The timing was entirely unpredictable, which seems to fit with Dempsey’s career.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA, Wash. — The thing that made Clint Dempsey such an interesting player to watch was his unpredictability. He was the rare player unafraid to be unconventional at just about any moment, hitting a rabona here, dropping a no-look pass there, or trying to chip a goalkeeper from 40 yards just because he felt like it.

In that way, his Wednesday retirement made sense. Sure, he’d clearly lost his starting spot and the Sounders were getting along just fine without him, but I don’t think many people expected the hyper-competitive Texan to simply retire with nearly a third of the season — and potentially another chance at MLS Cup glory — remaining.

Prior to the announcement, the team had been suggesting a “lower-back injury” was keeping Dempsey out. It’s entirely possible that there’s some truth in that, but any mention of injury forcing Dempsey’s decision was conspicuously absent during the announcement.

“He’s the only one that can speak to what led to his decision,” Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer said when asked specifically about injury playing a role in Dempsey’s retirement.

Somewhat predictably, Dempsey was not made available to speak for himself. That’s sort of been his modus operandi throughout his Sounders tenure, rarely speaking to the press following matches unless he scored and almost never available following anything remotely controversial. The closest thing to insight he offered in his team-issued statement was “the time is right,” and his only personal note was an Instagram post saying “Thank you it’s been real.” I don’t have much expectation of when or if he’ll ever offer more insight.

In an interview with Steve Zakuani last year, he suggested he wasn’t all that concerned with how anyone views his legacy.

Sounders officials, left to speak on his behalf, went to great lengths to make it clear that Dempsey’s decision was his alone, and that they played virtually no role. That’s easy enough to believe. If they had been the ones pushing for him to retire, they probably would have preferred he do it before the close of the transfer window.

Why he chose to do it now is anyone’s guess.

It’s of course possible that there is some sort of injury that played a part in his decision. But even if there’s not, it seems safe to say that his place in Brian Schmetzer’s depth-chart did. Dempsey’s last start was the 3-2 loss at home to the Portland Timbers that probably marks rock-bottom for the Sounders’ season. The possibility of a playoff run seemed almost impossible after that result.

Schmetzer clearly realized that something needed to change, and removing Dempsey from the starting lineup was apparently one such thing.

Dempsey came off the bench in the Sounders’ next two games — a win at Colorado and a hard-fought scoreless tie in New England — and looked reasonably energetic while logging about 30 minutes in each. But then he didn’t even make the trip to Atlanta for a nationally televised game against a high-profile opponent. He was on the bench for the 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps and then made what turned out to be his final professional appearance in a 1-0 win at San Jose. Dempsey also suited up for the 3-1 win over New York City FC, but didn’t feature. It was the second time in three games he had been a “DNP/coach’s decision,” something that happened to him just once last year and quite possibly never before in his Sounders career.

“My job is sometimes not easy, because everybody wants to play,” Schmetzer said about discussions he’d had with Dempsey during the stretch. “I’ve had tough conversations with Clint. I’ve had tough conversations with Roman [Torres]. I’ve had tough conversations with some of the young guys. That’s just part of the job.

“Again, I’ll say that all of the conversations are always respectful. They’re all team guys. That group out there, that team believes in what they’re doing. They always want to help their teammates and Clint was part of that. There were no issues.”

Dempsey may not have thrown a fit or even sulked over the decision. If any of that was happening, it was behind closed doors and not something that we’ve even gotten a hint of in the press.

But Schmetzer had clearly sent a message: While we may value your contributions and consider you an important part of the team, you are no longer a necessity.

Dempsey had been willing to accept a diminished role with the United States national team, but that was in pursuit of a World Cup. Dempsey had never left any doubt that qualifying and playing in a fourth World Cup was a significant goal, and he was apparently willing to swallow some measure of pride to remain part of that group.

There had been a hope that freed of his national team responsibilities — and possibly motivated by finally being on the field for an MLS Cup victory — that Dempsey could recreate, or maybe even improve upon, his 2017 performance.

It clearly wasn’t happening. Whether it was injury, motivation or simply being asked to fill a role for which he was ill-equipped, this year had not gone the way anyone in the Sounders organization had hoped. I can’t imagine anyone was more disappointed in that than Dempsey, who finished with just one goal and one assist in about 900 minutes. It was easily the worst season of his illustrious career.

As it turned out, the last time Dempsey kicked a ball in a competitive match as a professional was an attempt on an empty net from near midfield. After the ball slowly made its way toward the goal and ultimately hit the far post, Dempsey just simply adjusted his shorts and gave a little smile.

You could almost see him thinking, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”

Watching him in training, you could still see the same skill that made observers marvel. The flicks, the feints, the shots were all still there. I know I wanted to see what he could do alongside a talent like Raúl Ruidíaz. But I also have a hard time blaming him for not wanting to simply hope he got that chance. The Sounders had moved on.

Maybe Dempsey just decided he needed to as well.