Amidst an absolutely amazing spectacle of a match that slammed together so many memorable moments that it will invariably become a 30 For 30 in the near future, the breakout star from Sunday’s Concacaf Nations League final may not have even set foot on the field.
If you tuned in to the pregame, the halftime show or the admirably long postgame show, Clint Dempsey’s unique type of starpower was impossible to miss. Whether it was some sober bit of analysis or, more frequently, a bit of light banter, Dempsey managed to shine. To steal a term once bestowed upon him as a player, Dempsey was simply willing to “try shit” and, more often than not, it worked better than any of us could have imagined.
I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and admit that I was skeptical when CBS first announced that Dempsey would be participating in their Nations League coverage. I covered him during the entirety of his six seasons with the Seattle Sounders and found him to be, quite possibly, the least interesting quote on the team. I don’t necessarily blame him for that, mind you, but more often than not I found myself almost tuning out during his limited press availabilities.
This was surely a conscious choice by Dempsey. By time time he arrived in Seattle in 2013, he was already arguably the biggest and most famous American soccer player in history. The once down-to-earth, fun-loving kid who had first broke onto the national scene in 2004 as an audacious MLS rookie and then had his first taste with stardom after scoring in the 2006 World Cup had been forced to sharpen some of his edges during eight seasons in the English Premier League.
For a player who was going to get plenty of attention just through his playing style and achievements, he clearly learned that his best path to personal happiness was to be as boring as possible with the media. Dempsey had been burned a few times with the English media and the upside to playing nice just didn’t seem to pencil out.
Whatever the Sounders expected after making him one of the most expensive signings in league history, they seemed fine with how things settled out. Dempsey would dutifully talk to the press about once a month after training and give postgame interviews, mostly after he scored. Dempsey was respectful and every now and then might give some useful tactical observations, but also wasn’t going out of his way to show personality or give particularly interesting quotes. It was enough that the TV stations had something to use, but it was rarely the type of stuff Sounder at Heart readers would find insightful.
Given all this, I wasn’t particularly surprised when he barely said a word at his pregame farewell ceremony in 2018 and didn’t even meet with the press.
It was also why my expectations were so low for him as a commentator. Dempsey, I figured, didn’t really need this and was more interested in hanging out with friends while collecting a nice little payday than turning into soccer’s Charles Barkley.
Clearly, I underestimated him. From the moment he showed up on the set of the Nations League semifinals pregame rocking sunglasses and no tie, it was pretty obvious that Dempsey was going to offer something different.
Dempsey didn’t have a ton of other memorable moments from his studio debut, but he managed to one-up himself in terms of fashion statements for the final when he came onto the set wearing a camouflage blazer (apparently, the same one he got from his appearance on Men in Blazers).
You see what Clint Dempsey is wearing today for this USMNT-Mexico game?! The man brought hunting and fishing to work as a condition for leaving the woods. I'm in awe of his dedication and appreciate him more every day. pic.twitter.com/0UrscTFmrG— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) June 7, 2021
He also brought back the shades, this time as more of a purposeful prop.
“The future’s bright” - @clint_dempsey pic.twitter.com/l1YZNtRDXM— CBS Sports Golazo (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 7, 2021
It wasn’t all wardrobe gimmicks, though. The studio crew, led by the incomparable Kate Abdo, was genuinely entertaining, with Dempsey often in the middle of the antics. For instance, he dared co-host Charlie Davies to reprise his “stanky leg” celebration during the on-field pregame ceremony ... and Davies did it.
"How bout the stanky leg?"@ClintDempsey really made @CharlieDavies9 do the stanky leg pic.twitter.com/yHRCWwTp0X— CBS Sports Golazo (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 7, 2021
Dempsey’s appeal is so strong that a fan actually tried to rush the stage at one point in the broadcast, which didn’t seem to shake the famously confrontational player in the slightest.
Clint Dempsey watched a man die tonight and probably won't remember it because it not even the tenth wildest thing that happened in this game. #USAvMEXpic.twitter.com/qhUsbEChHz— Rich Homie Juan (@HeyJFed) June 7, 2021
Not only that, but Dempsey even joked with Abdo that she was the one wearing the “Sons of Anarchy jacket” and thus should have been protecting them.
The most illustrative moment of the broadcast, though, was what I have to assume was a completely improvised exchange when Dempsey stole Oguchi Onyewu’s notes.
Oguchi Onyewu famously got in a fight with Zlatan in training once, and Dempsey just went on national TV and basically called him a nerd and shoved him into a locker. https://t.co/zIKAkYgfXa— Tim Foss (@timostlundfoss) June 8, 2021
Abdo deserves a lot of credit for keeping all of this from hurtling off the rails. She had to do the heavy lifting of trying to provide a semblance of structure to the nearly five-hour broadcast and did an exemplary job. Onyewu and Davies also were very good at finding the right balance between serious commentary and “yucking it up with the boys,” but Dempsey was the one most viewers tuned in to see and was the star who shown brightest.
Clint Dempsey was the man of the match tonight.— Bobby Boswell (@bobbyboswell) June 4, 2021
Put it all together and the broadcast came close to accomplishing soccer’s version of “Inside the NBA,” a sort of North Star that producers have been aiming for as long as I can remember.
Key to all of this was Dempsey. This version has always been there — look no further than this video of him going to a North Carolina BBQ join with Eddie Johnson in 2007 before he moved to Fulham — but it had just been stashed away. Retirement, I suspect, has given Dempsey some more perspective, and has probably been a bit more mundane than he bargained for. During a recent appearance on Onyewu’s podcast, Dempsey joked about how he had essentially become an “Uber driver” for his five kids. It’s a feeling that any parent can easily relate to.
But that may also be why this won’t be the last we see of Dempsey on broadcast stage. He looked like he had a ton of fun during these few days and it’s not hard to imagine him being up for reprising that role, especially if Abdo, Onyewu and Davies are along for the ride with him. Unlike his press responsibilities as a player, these sort of appearances can be on his own terms and can come as frequently or intermittently as he wants.
If this ends up being a one-off? It would definitely be a shame, but at least it’s one that we all got to experience.