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Ultimate competitor, Clint Dempsey captures elusive club trophy

CHESTER, Pa. – Sitting in the post-game press conference beneath the River End, the supporters section at PPL Park, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin invoked Clint Dempsey’s experience and excellence as key reasons why Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final slipped away.

“Clint’s special, he’s been through these games,” the interim manager said following the 3-1 defeat. “His ability to get into the box late and his ability to hold up the ball is the best in our country. It’s no secret that he’s a winner.”

Dempsey, 31, is a national team captain and an icon. He was a standard bearer for Americans playing abroad and is the only U.S. male to score in three World Cups. But a winner? Although few would dispute that – the Texan veteran certainly carries himself like one – the fact remained before Tuesday’s match that Dempsey never had lifted a trophy with his club.

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He claimed CONCACAF Gold Cup titles in 2005 and 2007, but was 0-for-10 years during stints with the New England Revolution, Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur and the Seattle Sounders. It was a streak that hasn’t really colored anyone’s perception of him nor did it seem like something that ate at Dempsey too deeply. He didn’t mention it much when he joined the Sounders during the summer of 2013, and he spoke recently about Seattle’s pursuit of a fourth Open Cup title only in terms of the collective. But the drought was there. Until Tuesday, that is, when Dempsey scored the overtime game-winner that prolonged the Union’s chase for its first major trophy and finally ended his own.

“Now I can say that I won trophies with my country and also my club team,” Dempsey said afterward, clutching his gold Open Cup medal in his hands behind his back. “Wherever you are, you’re trying to win things. When I was at Fulham we pushed to the Europa League final [in 2010]. When you’re with the national team, you’re trying to win Gold Cups. I won two. Got to the Confederations Cup final [in ‘09] and came up a little short there. Wherever you play, you want to win. When you’re playing on a good team, you always have that opportunity.”

Seattle faded toward the end of the 2013 season, but improved its chemistry and depth over the winter. It has the best record in MLS and defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire and Portland Timbers on its way to the final of the Open Cup, the 101-year-old tournament open to all professional and affiliated amateur teams in the U.S. The Sounders are so loaded that coach Sigi Schmid, in the midst of a jam-packed September, rested leading scorer Obafemi Martins for the first hour on Tuesday. His understudy, Chad Barrett, scored the 48th-minute equalizer on a short-range header. Once re-established, the Dempsey-Martins partnership proved to be too much for the hosts.

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“They’re stacked," Curtin said. "They’re a handful."

In the 101st minute, Dempsey slipped the ball to Martins and continued into the penalty area, which then opened up as three Union defenders shifted toward the Nigerian. Dempsey tucked Martins’ return pass neatly between Philadelphia goalkeeper Zac MacMath and the left post. It was his 12th goal of the year. Martins finished off Philadelphia 13 minutes later.

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“[Dempsey and Martins] know where each other are on the field all the time,” Schmid said. “It’s the same thing at practice. We always play them together. When we play 6 v. 6, 8 v. 8, it doesn’t matter. We always put them on the team together so they’ve just developed a really good relationship with each other.”

Schmid said that he and Dempsey didn’t talk explicitly about the player’s trophy chase during their courtship last year.

“I think with competitive athletes, that’s implied. If they’re not interested in that, then they’re probably not playing at the level he’s playing at,” the coach said.

And Dempsey revealed that competitiveness following the game, talking about his first club honor as one that represented an opportunity rather than relief. He was emboldened, not satisfied.

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“[I came] here to Seattle to try to push for MLS Cup – I think that’s the most important thing – and it would be great if we could do three things this season,” he said.

No MLS team has won the league championship, the Open Cup and the Supporters Shield (awarded to the club with the best regular season record) in the same year. Dempsey now has a taste for silverware and said the Sounders are shooting for the historic triple.

“I’m excited about [the Open Cup] but we want to keep pushing. There’s more to try to accomplish this season and we have a good enough team that I think we can really do something special. But there’s still a lot of work cut out for ourselves,” he said.

Seattle captain Brad Evans, a frequent teammate of Dempsey’s with the U.S., won an MLS Cup and Supporters Shield in Columbus and then four Open Cups in Seattle. Like just about everyone who’s watched Dempsey play over the years, Evans’ opinion wasn’t shaped by the long wait for a club trophy.

“Clint’s been a team-first kind of guy ever since day one,” Evans said. “That’s what everybody loves about him. Tell him to do something on the field and he does it. He puts his head down and works – [especially] through the overtime [tonight]. I can’t say enough about the guy. It’s fun to learn from him. He’s a leader.”

And now, at last, a champion.