Dempsey: Qualifying for the World Cup is bigger than breaking scoring records

By Ridge Mahoney
A hat trick of excellent goals in a romp at home, a simple tap-in to salvage a qualifying point on the road.

So it goes for Deuce, Clint Dempsey, formerly the Texas trailer-park kid and first-round draft choice of the New England Revolution, in a land far away the scorer of one of the most memorable goals in the long history of Fulham FC, not so long ago the Seattle Sounder forward mysteriously and worrisomely benched by a heart condition, and currently the No. 2 all-time scorer in U.S. national-team history.

As David Byrne of Talking Heads crooned so memorably, “How did I get here?” To tell that fascinating tale is beyond the scope of this submission, and all that really matters is the here and now.

Within one goal of Landon Donovan’s U.S. record of 57 goals is where he is, with about 10 weeks to wait before the next opportunity to tie and break that mark. By netting four in Hexagonal matches against Honduras and Panama -- in the aftermath of his 34th birthday March 9 -- he’s revived discussions of his place among the all-time U.S. greats and his chances of playing in a fourth World Cup next year in Russia.

Yet it’s safe to say that if those thoughts crossed his mind in the aftermath of the two games, they did so fleetingly. Off the field as well as on it, Dempsey is very much a man of the moment. With two more internationals done and dusted, his mind turned to reuniting with his family in Seattle, and getting back on the field with the Sounders, for which he scored two goals in the first three games following a five-month layoff of cardiac tests, fitness sessions, consultations, and evaluations.

Prior to his hat trick against Honduras -- consisting of two crisp finishes and a rainbow free kick that completely flummoxed keeper Donis Escober not much had come from Dempsey about his long absence. After the match, various U.S. players entered and exited a long tent set up for interviews but there was no sign of Dempsey. He’d drawn the short straw for doping control and after many long minutes – especially for those media members on deadline – he finally emerged to speak simply yet eloquently.

"It’s feels great to be back with the team, but more importantly it’s three points and putting ourselves in a better position to try and qualify for the World Cup," he said. "It was great to get goals and now’s it’s about keep moving forward."

It wasn’t a scintillating session but it was worth the wait. The most-often used term, “three points,” pinpointed where his head was at.

“There’s always the possibility you’re not going to be able to come back,” he said of the road he’d traveled to wear the national-team shirt once again. “To get to that high level you have to try to work hard to make sure everything is right. It’s a process. Going through that and not really knowing.

“But the doctors did a great job, the staff in Seattle has done a great job with monitoring me, doing the proper training and not doing too much so I could get myself back. You’re just grateful for every day, grateful for every game you get to play in, because you never know when it’s going to be taken from you.”

A month ago, head coach Bruce Arena said more likely than not Dempsey -- after Seattle team doctors cleared him to train and play -- would not be called up for the March games. Two weeks ago, he names Dempsey to the squad but mentions “a different role,” an obvious reference to being a reserve. Last Friday he starts Dempsey, who plays the entire game and scores three goals. On Tuesday, Dempsey starts again, scores again, and goes the full 90 minutes. Again.

“I owe a lot to Bruce,” said Dempsey, first capped by Arena in 2004. “He’s the one who first brought me in to the national team, gave me the opportunity to play in World Cup qualifying games, play in the World Cup, get a goal in the World Cup -- that was a dream come true as a kid for me -- so it was great to come full circle again.”

He’s the only American player to score in three World Cup tournaments (2006, 2010, 2014) and the prospects of playing in a fourth – which seemed distant and remote in August -- have brightened in the past few weeks. When the subject came up in the postgame session he answered straight-up, no chaser.

“It would be awesome, a dream come true,” he said. “Anytime you get to play in a World Cup, it’s a dream come true. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to do it. You’ve gotta stay relevant, you’ve gotta stay producing, and you can’t just say it and it’s going to happen.
You’ve got to stay on the field and do it. Just take each game as it comes and hopefully I can stay part of the team. It would be great if I could be around for that.”

He gave the same treatment to the question of taking from Donovan the mantle of all-time leading scorer. He addressed the issue but kept going back to what he believed really matters, and what often escapes critics who question his commitment, his drive, and his age.

“It’s in your mind,” he said of catching and passing his former teammate, who worked the game as a commentator for Fox Sports 1. “If it comes it comes, if it don’t, it don’t. I’m gonna keep pushing, keep trying to be in games. If you keep doing the right things, you should get good looks and opportunities in front of goal. It would be great but the most important thing is qualifying for the World Cup. That’s bigger than me trying to break a record.”

Okay, one more just for the record. No way to know where Deuce will be in 15 months in terms of fitness and form and fight, but as of today, he's on the cusp of history. He'll talk about it but only if you remind him.

"We had some injuries and people had to step up," said Dempsey after the Honduras game, "and I was one of those guys asked if I could step up and you know me, I’m a fighter, and I look for the opportunity to get out there and show that I should be around still. It feels great to play a part in the team getting three points."
2 comments about "Dempsey: Qualifying for the World Cup is bigger than breaking scoring records".
  1. Bruce Moorhead, March 30, 2017 at 4:23 p.m.

    Fantastic for Clint. He knows all about "it being taken from you". Some here will be aware of the story of the teenage Clint, some will not. Suffice to say that his older sister, a tennis prodigy, died suddenly about age 16. That is why Clint usually makes the sign of the cross and points skyward after scoring a goal, because he never forgets her. Can't help but wonder if his heart troubles are related to what happened to her.

  2. gill agee, March 31, 2017 at 12:59 a.m.

    Not a fan of the "editorial views" here. But Clint is the best--with a headnod to Reyna, maybe the best ever. No one does more with his athletic abilities than Clint. Hell of an athlete.

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