It was May 2012, the U.S. national team was preparing to kick off a new World Cup qualifying cycle and Landon Donovan, the program’s all-time leading scorer, sat down with four reporters at an Orlando hotel and began revealing the physical and emotional fatigue that led to that notorious 2013 sabbatical and then his retirement the following year.
“All players reach a point in their career where it’s natural to lose some of that hunger, that desire,” Donovan said that day. “There’s no question at some point, sooner rather than later, I’ll be pretty burned out and it’ll be time to take a step back.”
Then Clint Dempsey came up. The Texan was (and still is) only one year younger than his former teammate. But as Donovan’s fire started to flicker, he saw no such ebb in Dempsey.
“Clint’s a little bit of a different animal,” Donovan said. “He still has that crazy hunger to succeed, more so than most. That’s great. That’s a beautiful thing and the more players we have like that, the better it’s going to be.”
Some of that “crazy hunger” is the result of temperament and some of it comes down to timing. That same week, Dempsey offered a few details on its origin. He pointed out that Donovan already was established at age 17—a golden ball winner at the 1999 U-17 World Cup and a reserve at Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen. At that age, Dempsey was just trying to get a game.
“I did it every way possible. I was playing pickup, high school, club ball. I was playing in a men’s league, then I want to [Furman] University,” he said. “I just tried to do everything I could. I was grinding because I knew it was going to be difficult. And even though I’ve come this far, I’m humbled in the fact that I know it could have easily not have happened.”
Dempsey made his pro debut at 21 and earned his first U.S. start on March 9, 2005—his 22nd birthday. When Donovan turned 22, he’d already started for his country 39 times.
“It’s always been a race against time really for me,” Dempsey said back in 2012. "It’s kind of my mentality, to make up for lost time.”
His three-hour-rides to riches story is well known. It began with the long-haul drives from Nacogdoches to Dallas for practices, the unexpected death of his 16-year-old sister, Jennifer, and his 2004 emergence with the New England Revolution. Dempsey went on to become an icon at Fulham, the first American to score in three World Cups and the recipient of a life-changing, $33 million commitment from the Seattle Sounders in 2013.
An extended contract expires at the end of next season. Dempsey turned 33 last month and is father to four children. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. All that’s left to write is the conclusion to his unparalleled story, and the denouement could begin at next month’s Copa América Centenario. A fourth World Cup is a long two years away, the body ages quicker in its mid-30s and the pressure to bring an MLS Cup to Seattle is intensifying.
Donovan’s all-time U.S. scoring record is out there, calling (Dempsey trails by eight). So is the April spawning season, which Dempsey, an avid fisherman, has missed just about every year of his adult life.
His hunger hasn’t diminished, but his perspective has changed now that he can glimpse the finish line. Dempsey spent years fighting to prove himself and secure his place. Now he hopes to hold off the next generation for just a little bit longer. He’ll relish this Copa América played on home soil, before big crowds against elite opposition. There are accolades still to win and a sport still to build, and Dempsey, who’s still the national team’s most reliable finisher, intends to squeeze every last drop out of his remaining opportunities.
“With the national team, you never know how long you’ve got so you always have to be pushing and making the most of it,” he told SI.com this week. “At certain times during your career, at different ages, you feel better than others. But you still want to be productive and make the most of it. You want to be able to look back at it and be proud of what you were able to to when you were playing …. I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I'm still pushing while I’m still playing.”
Dempsey’s importance remains indisputable. That was evident at the 2014 World Cup, where an early goal helped spark the U.S. to a cathartic 2-1 over Ghana and a late goal provided a crucial (but short-lived) lead against Portugal. And it was evident at last summer’s ill-fated CONCACAF Gold Cup, where the stuttering Americans might have exited even earlier if not for Dempsey’s tournament-high seven markers. He was poor in October’s Confederations Cup playoff but then looked revitalized in March as he tallied one goal and one assist in a vital 4-0 qualifying demolition of Guatemala.
With Jozy Altidore now out thanks to his infuriatingly frail hamstrings and heirs apparent Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood still finding their international feet, the U.S. attack likely will revolve around Dempsey once again.
His combination of ruthlessness in the penalty area and an ability to withdraw, find the ball and create within ephemeral slivers of space remains unique among current American players.
“There haven’t been many soccer players in U.S. soccer history that are game changes like Clint is,” Donovan said recently on the Sounders’ club podcast. “If the team needs a special player, a special moment or a goal, there’s not too many names on the U.S. roster that you would look to and say, ‘Yeah, that's the guy who can do it.’ I think the team needs him.”
That need ensures the pressure on Dempsey remains high. This Copa América isn’t a farewell tour and he hasn’t ruled out trying to hang on for a fourth World Cup. In addition, the sour taste of 2015 still lingers.
“It’s a situation where you want to get back to playing good ball and progressing the game in the States,” he told SI.com. “When you don’t do well in the Gold Cup and we didn’t do well in the playoff game, it’s a chance to kind of bounce back from that, get back on track and doing things right. I look forward to playing in the tournament and to try to do something special.
“I’ve always put pressure on myself to perform well,” he continued. “I think what I’ve done in big games I’ve played has showed that. My mentality doesn’t change as far as that’s concerned, to be the best and make the most of those games that I’m available for no matter the situation.”
It represents a different sort of tension than the type he felt when he was younger—wondering if he’d be able to secure the opportunity, respect and stability he sought.
He often felt compelled to defend his record, reminding people of his statistics when playing for the U.S. or in a withdrawn role and taking umbrage when some suggested that his form for country occasionally didn’t match his form for club.
There were hints of angst and frustration his words, as if his career could be snatched away at any time.
“That’s just being young and worrying about stuff that doesn’t really matter,” Dempsey explained. “At the end of the day, you know what you’ve accomplished and you don’t have any control over other people’s opinions. People are going to think what they want, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more at peace with that and not stressing about those type of things.”
Dempsey’s motivation has evolved. His power doesn’t have to come from the chip on his shoulder. He now has his own established standards to meet, not to mention a country that’s counting on him. He acknowledged that he’s “not blind” to the fact that Donovan’s scoring record is “out there,” but he’s aware that “there’s a balance to do it in the right way.”
Dempsey said the key is, “To stay hungry, but also not to be so hungry that you’re missing opportunities to help your team win games, like finding the right pass instead of taking that shot.”
If he plays well, victory will come. And if victory comes, so will the statistics—not to mention future opportunities. Dempsey said he wants to continue to represent the U.S. and hopes to deliver a championship to Seattle. He is not longing for retirement, as Donovan seemed to be in 2012. But Dempsey doesn’t fear it. He’s taking it “one tournament at a time,” he said. At 33, he now recognizes how far he’s come.
“The work you put out there, and when you know you’re out there trying to make a difference and make an impact and gains for both club and country, that’s good enough for me. It’s not going to be all that when I’m done," he said. "I’ll have the memories for myself. It’s not about what’s written about me. I’ll be out in the country. I’ll be fishing and hunting out in the country.”
If he’s caught on a TV set in a jacket and tie arguing with Alexi Lalas, “you’d better come flatten me,” he said.
“For me, it’s been about playing the game as long as I could, to be able to take it as far as I could and to be able to take care of my family,” he said. “I come from a small town. To go see the world and be able to hold your own, that’s something that gives me pride. That’s something I can tell my kids and grandkids about, and hopefully inspire others to do the same thing.”