Most soccer fans aren’t naïve to the cruel inevitability of the professional game. Yesterday’s wow-wow hero is today’s trade bait, or a conversation starter as a bunch of us Monday morning center backs discuss who should, shouldn’t, might or might not wave goodbye to the international game.
So we knew the day would come when Clint Dempsey would no longer be around to rescue US pride with Deuce Face or, more importantly, to rescue US World Cup endeavors with one of his signature goals. His trademark strikes were one part skill, one part scrappy kid from the East Texas scrub.
The inexorable sands of time work that way, of course. But this one seems to be catching us off guard; the conversations regarding “Deuce” shifted brutally fast, didn’t they?
Just last summer fans lamented a US Open Cup-related suspension that would keep Dempsey from early Gold Cup matches; we all counted to see when U.S. Soccer’s second all-time leading scorer – behind Landon Donovan but ahead of third-place Eric Wynalda – could re-join the US effort.
Now the questions regarding Dempsey are being asked in more sullen tones: Does he have a role with the United States national team? Should he have a role? Will he have a role? Would he accept a different role? And on it goes.
It all became more topical (that’s another way of saying it was put right in our faces) earlier this week when US coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his roster for the pair of upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Dempsey wasn’t on it, and it really was an “Oh … ” moment for US supporters and media alike.
It is certainly true that the United States should not need Dempsey as the long road to Russia – 16 matches over two years, assuming things go as planned – gets going Friday in St. Louis. If the US cannot handle St. Vincent and the Grenadines inside a packed Busch Stadium, then Dempsey’s future will drop way, way down the list of talking points.
Still, the significance of the moment should not be lost. This guy didn’t just play in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups; he scored in all three of them. So beginning the 2018 cycle without him marks a significant moment.
All this probably shouldn’t have been so surprising; the warning signs have been flashing, haven’t they? I wrote in April that the United States cannot continue to build around Dempsey.
But this is Dempsey! See, figures such as Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and others are great soccer players. We are proud of them and proud of what they demonstrated about our emergence into the global game, that this country can cultivate soccer players of world class aptitude.
But a certain few figures go beyond it, representing virtues of something more, soccer’s version of Captain America. Fearless and spunky to the point of being cocky about it all, Dempsey is “Don’t Tread On Me” personified. We stood behind Dempsey for the same reason so many stood behind Oguchi Onyewu despite evidence of average skill. Yes, some other defenders may have better positioning and can certainly move possession out of the back more gracefully. But did they stare down Mexican bad boy Jared Borgetti the way Onyewu famously did? Well, there you go.
So the truth hurts with Deuce, and this sudden-onset, hurtful reality looks like this: The winter of Dempsey’s fabulous career seems upon us.
There is suddenly talk in Seattle about whether the club should trade Dempsey. (Good luck with all that; how many MLS clubs will pay a salary that approaches $7 million for a man who turns 33 in March, with potential call-ups and increasing incidence of injury?)
Earlier this year there were whispers that Dempsey might retire internationally following the Gold Cup. He more or less put those to rest over the weekend during an interview with ESPN Soccer Today’s Marc Stein. (Disclosure, I co-host the radio show with Stein.) Dempsey said he hoped to continue with the national team and expressed confidence that it would happen.
And it probably will. After all, if there is a place for Alan Gordon (no offense … but he doesn’t even start for a team that was eliminated in the first round of Major League Soccer’s playoffs) then there is probably a role for Dempsey.
On the other hand, it’s more complicated with Dempsey. Whereas Gordon clearly has a role for club and, yes, apparently, for country – a late mayhem maker off the bench – it’s fair to wonder if such a position would placate a former US captain?
And anyone who has watched Dempsey since his days in New England and then through Craven Cottage and White Hart Lane knows he comes from the island of misfit toys, tactically speaking. Wide midfielder? Striker closer to goal? Second striker? Playmaker out of midfield?
If you think about it, Dempsey pulled off something special, fashioning a lucrative and unquestionably successful career even if no one quite knew what to do with him. That’s something else that made him quintessentially American. It was the “can do” spirit. With Dempsey, you didn’t really ask “how” so much as you just put him out there and trusted that, somehow, he’d get the job done.
At least, until he didn’t. His production wasn’t far off in 2015, with 10 goals and 10 assists in 20 matches for Seattle. But he wasn’t the same after the Gold Cup, with just three goals for the Sounders since May. Injuries are increasingly an issue, probably another reason why Dempsey looked so worn down the MLS stretch.
In Klinsmann’s camp, there’s room for older hands to balance the incoming wave of younger types. In that way, there’s no surprise in seeing someone like Kyle Beckerman on the roster. But Dempsey’s freelancing tendencies – and the attached fact that Michael Bradley never seems to function as well as a playmaker when he’s bumping into Dempsey’s unpredictable drops into midfield – make this one a different beast to tame.
Things are happening with Dempsey. We’re not sure what, but this moment means, well, something. If nothing else, it’s the alarm bell from the watchtower for fans and media:
We certainly don’t need to start kicking dirt over the man’s career here, but the time for these conversations has started.