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Post-career Pontifications: On Clint Dempsey

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What’s amazing is his remarkable consistency, what’s a shame is that we couldn’t appreciate him more.

Photo: MikeRussellFoto

When I think about Clint Dempsey’s six seasons with the Seattle Sounders, I do so somewhat wistfully. There’s a part of me that feels inexplicably lucky. Dempsey was easily the most famous player, at the thing closest to his peak stardom, that I ever had a chance to cover on a regular basis. Even more than Obafemi Martins, he was the player who most often did something so unbelievable that I would react more like a fan than a reporter (which got me in trouble more than once in the press box).

But there’s another part of me that’s a bit sanguine. Again, even more than Martins, no player who ever spent time here was more closed off with the press. As a result, I don’t feel like I ever really got to know him, even in the limited way that reporters ever get to know the subjects they’re covering. It had gotten to the point that when he did interviews with large scrums of reporters, I often didn’t participate, as the chance for getting anything approaching insight was pretty minimal.

Dempsey often stuck pretty closely to his talking points or offered broad platitudes. Every now and then you’d get him rolling when he was talking about tactics or he was in a particularly good mood, but the closest we’d ever get to getting inside his head was during interviews with people like Taylor Twellman or Steve Zakuani, people who knew him on a more intimate level.

It’s no player’s responsibility to let reporters into their world, so I promise that I don’t harbor any grudges about this. But I do recognize that it was simply part of the package, and as a result I just don’t feel as though I got to know Dempsey very well despite covering a large portion of his career. Nearly every teammate who crossed paths with him says he was a great guy — funny, even. What we knew about him, then, was mostly second hand.

In a world full of athletes who are “living the life,” Dempsey was also a consummate family man. In the few interactions I had with his family, I was always struck by how normal they all seemed. If keeping the press at arm’s length was what it took for him to allow his family a more normal life, I’m sure it’s a tradeoff he’d make a million times over.

I still can’t help but be bummed that I didn’t get to cover the version of Clint Dempsey who would let a camera crew come with him to a random barbecue joint in North Carolina and show none of the guardedness he later developed.

Six years is a lot!

Considering Seattle was his last stop, I suspect a lot of people will always associate Clint Dempsey with the Sounders. He played at least half of six seasons here, after all, something he didn’t do at any of his other club stops (technically, he was at Fulham for parts of seven seasons, but two of those were more like a quarter of a season).

What’s somewhat surprising is that Dempsey only logged 136 appearances in all competitions with the Sounders. Even if you ignore 2013, when he joined near midseason, he only averaged about 25 all-competition appearances per year during his five full seasons here. If you look at just his regular-season appearances, he only played in about 66 percent of them, and that number only goes up to 68 percent if you don’t include this season.

There are a lot of reasons for that. The biggest is that he missed a large chunk of 2016 with an irregular heartbeat (when he only made 17 appearances). But he also missed a bunch of games for national team duty, various smaller injuries and suspensions. He only played in two U.S. Open Cup matches, the second of which was the Red Card Wedding that resulted in a six-match tournament ban.

He did, however, show up big time for the postseason, where he started 14 matches and scored a franchise-best six goals.

None of that is to diminish his time here. I think, for the most part, fans enjoyed seeing him wear the Rave Green as often as he did, and that we got him for six seasons should be considered very lucky.

At the same time, as much as I think he embraced Seattle, he was never really “ours.” By the time Dempsey came to Seattle, he was first and foremost a USMNT star. Where he played his club soccer was more of an interesting side note to his exploits on the international stage.

It’s tough sharing a legend

Somewhat as a result of his limited availability, if there’s one regret I think many of us will share about his time here it’s that we only really saw one year of anything close to “full Dempsey.” That’s not a knock on him, it’s just a reality that there were almost always extenuating circumstances that kept him from being fully focused on the Sounders.

The closest he ever came, I think, was in 2014, when he made 30 all-competition appearances for Seattle. That was also his most productive Sounders season, and arguably the team’s best-ever year as he helped lead them to the Supporters’ Shield. It’s no coincidence that so many of his best highlights come from that season, when he was working magic with Martins.

  • In 2013, he was clearly still getting adjusted to a new team that finished the season in utter turmoil. We saw glimpses of the player he was, but the one goal and one assist in 12 all-competition appearances speak to how much he struggled.
  • In 2014, he was effectively at his full powers and clearly motivated by the World Cup, as well as playing with someone like Martins. This was when he seemed to be having the most fun, too, trading back-heels and flicks to the point it almost became obscene. So many of his best Sounders moments come from that season, and his 17 goals and 10 assists in about 2,600 minutes were his most productive year here. It’s true that he missed six matches during the World Cup, but that was also the tournament for which he will be most remembered, as he scored two goals and played much of it with a broken nose.
  • In 2015, he was very good when he played, notching 14 goals and 10 assists in about 2,200 minutes for the Sounders. He added another nine goals for the USMNT that year, his most productive calendar year at the international level. Unfortunately, he missed large chunks of that Sounders season, and at one point sat out 11 of 12 games due to his Red Card Wedding suspension (three games), the Gold Cup (four games) and a hamstring injury (four games). If ever there was a year when he felt more like a ringer than a genuine part of the team, this was it.
  • He started slowly in 2016, had the usual missed appearances due to USMNT duty, and then, of course, had to call it a season after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
  • In 2017, Dempsey was very productive, all things considered. But he was also clearly limited as the team was trying to figure out how to best handle his recovery from the irregular heartbeat. That he still managed 16 goals and five assists for Seattle while bagging five more goals despite a mostly reserve role in the USMNT, is particularly impressive considering the extenuating circumstances. If you’re wondering why the Sounders decided to bring him back, remember that stat.
  • There’s no point in rehashing this year, but I think we can safely say this was a very diminished version of the Dempsey we saw during the bulk of his career. I don’t know if there’s an easy explanation why, but his production fell off to a degree most reasonable people didn’t see coming.

What’s somewhat counter-intuitive about all of this is Dempsey ended up scoring at least 20 club+country goals in a calendar year three times while with the Sounders. That’s something he only accomplished twice before coming here (in 2011, when he had 21, and in 2012, when he had 22). What’s frustrating is that he was still so close to the best version of himself during most of his six seasons, and yet the Sounders only got to enjoy a fraction of that.

Don’t misunderstand me, I feel lucky to have gotten to watch him play as much as I did. The selfish part of me just wanted to see what he could have done here if he hadn’t been getting pulled in so many directions.

Remarkable consistency

Steve Zakuani recently interviewed Eddie Johnson, with most of their conversation focusing on Dempsey. Perhaps no teammate shared more personal moments with Dempsey than Johnson, who was his teammate on three separate teams.

One of the things that struck me was Johnson’s highlighting of Dempsey’s consistency. Unlike himself or virtually any of Dempsey’s USMNT contemporaries, Johnson pointed out that Dempsey never really suffered a down year and that his career was a near constant upward trajectory.

Dempsey never scored fewer than seven goals in an MLS season and never scored fewer than six in a full Premier League campaign (all of those were early in his career). He scored at least two goals in each of the 13 years he was a regular with the USMNT, and had nine years where he scored at least four. Landon Donovan, with whom he remains tied for the most USMNT goals, had four years of one or fewer goals. Despite accusations that MLS had made him “soft”, he scored 21 international goals after making the move. His scoring rate after the move was .53 per appearance as opposed to .46 in the four years before and much better than the .38 of his pre-Sounders international career.

I don’t know that this was why he chose to hang it up when he did, but you can definitely imagine that his relative inexperience with ineffectiveness was a contributing factor.

One gif to tell the tale

If this doesn’t make you smile, I’m not sure anything will.

Quote of the career

“I am fine with anybody saying what they want to say because I am at peace with what I have been able to do.” — Clint Dempsey on himself in an interview last year with Steve Zakuani

A career in one stat

0 — You could argue that Dempsey played lots of positions throughout his career, but this is the number of positions he played in a traditional sense. He was not a wide player, not a No. 10, not a No. 9. He was a guy who would find a way to score and set up others, but he did it his way. It was amazing to watch and I’m glad I got to do so much of it. (h/t @WillParchman)