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As Dempsey nears USMNT history, high-scoring peers marvel at his unique career

Clint Dempsey trails Landon Donovan by just one goal for the USA's all-time record, and setting it will be a crowning achievement on an unlikely journey.

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — It’s a measure of Clint Dempsey’s goal-scoring prowess that his peers atop the U.S. all-time list make a wide range of choices when asked to name their favorite Dempsey goal for the U.S. men’s national team. Then again, there are 56 goals to pick from during Dempsey’s sterling 12-year international career, which is set to continue this week when the U.S. plays on Thursday (against Trinidad and Tobago) and on Sunday (at Mexico) in two important World Cup qualifiers.

As Dempsey himself said here on Tuesday, the most important thing this year for the U.S. is to qualify for World Cup 2018, and snagging three points at home against Trinidad is critical for a team that’s still in fourth place in the Hexagonal (from which only three teams will qualify automatically for Russia).

But Dempsey, 34, is also just one goal behind Landon Donovan’s all-time U.S. men’s record (57), and the Nacogdoches, Texas, native who grew up being known as “The Little Rooster” in East Texas Mexican League games could make U.S. Soccer history this week.

When asked which of Dempsey’s U.S. goals is their favorite, the men at the top of the U.S. all-time list showed their appreciation for an oeuvre known for its diversity:

LANDON DONOVAN(No. 1, 57 all-time U.S. goals in 157 caps): Dempsey’s goal against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals that gave the U.S. a 2-0 upset victory over the European champion that would win the World Cup the following year.

“It was the prototypical Deuce goal,” Donovan says, “and meant so much.”

CLINT DEMPSEY (No. 2, 56 U.S. goals in 133 caps): His goal to make it 1-1 against Ghana (in an eventual 2-1 defeat) at World Cup 2006, the first of his four goals over three World Cups.

“That’s what I dreamed about as a kid,” says Dempsey, who thanked current U.S. coach Bruce Arena for giving him the chance to play in 2006. “That opened the door for me in Europe.”

JOZY ALTIDORE(No. 3, 37 U.S. goals in 102 caps): Dempsey’s goal against England in World Cup 2010, which was misplayed by goalkeeper Robert Green in a 1-1 opening-game tie.

“I remember going into that tournament everybody told us we were going to finish last and we were going to be a pushover,” Altidore says. “That was kind of ironic, how he scored and how it happened. The joke was on them, so it was a little funny.”

ERIC WYNALDA (No. 4, 34 U.S. goals in 106 caps): Dempsey’s goal against Ghana in the first minute of the first game of World Cup 2014, which the U.S. would go on to win 2-1, ending its hex against the Black Stars.

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“We needed to get the monkey off our back,” Wynalda says. “This is a team that had our number. Are we going to come out scared? Clint is just an in-your-face, proud, talented player who loves the challenge. In that game, a lot of guys took a very different attitude. But he didn’t. He said, ‘Give me the damn ball, I’m going.’ And it happened early, and it was a great goal.”

One thing that stands out to Dempsey’s peers is his ability to score goals despite not being anything close to a pure center forward.

“He’s not a No. 9, but he’s got that mentality of a nine in terms of just knowing where the ball’s going to pop up,” says Altidore. “That’s what makes him successful over a number of years. Because you can’t always score the golazos. He’s able to score those grimy goals, and that’s why he’s so important to us.”

Adds Wynalda: “Here’s what’s most impressive about Landon and Clint. They’ve scored a percentage of their goals from midfield. That was something I was never able to accomplish. The numbers are crazy on me. I never scored from midfield [for the U.S.]. Clint is very capable of the spectacular, but his ability to read the minds of others and to anticipate where the ball is going to end up is why he should break the record.”

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Dempsey’s recent story is well-known by now: An irregular heartbeat took him away from the sport in August 2016 and threatened to end his career entirely. Multiple procedures at one of the nation’s top hospitals in Boston were needed, but Dempsey was back on the field to start the 2017 MLS season with Seattle. Injuries to U.S. forwards allowed him to start in March’s World Cup qualifiers, and Dempsey responded with a hat trick in a 6-0 win against Honduras and another goal in a 1-1 tie at Panama. It was a defining performance by a player who has had many of them over the years.

“You never really know with the [heart] situation,” Dempsey says. “You’ve got to make sure you’re feeling right to come back. They told me what I have wasn’t life threatening and that I would be back. I just believed in them and kept working, followed the protocol and was able to get back out there.”

Not even Dempsey expected to score four goals in two qualifiers in March, putting him in position to equal the goals record this week.

“My goals-per-game ratio with the national team has always been pretty good, but to get four in two is a little bit of a surprise, I would say," Dempsey said. "But still, there’s a lot of quality on the team. They put you in good positions to get chances.”

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Dempsey has dealt with challenges from the start. He grew up outside the traditional U.S. club system and youth national teams. He rode three hours each way with his parents to and from soccer practice in Dallas. He played at Furman and then was picked several spots down from Freddy Adu in the 2004 MLS draft by the New England Revolution. He fought his way to Europe and then grinded at Fulham, proving to a succession of coaches that he needed to be on the field. Coming back from an irregular heartbeat is only his latest unlikely feat.

As Donovan says, “Clint’s ability to overcome adversity every step of his career is what has made him special. He is capable of continually moving forward in his career in spite of obstacles, and that makes him unique.”

At some point, maybe this week, it’s likely that Dempsey will break Donovan’s U.S. men’s goals mark, just as Donovan broke Wynalda’s. It’s the cycle of life in a soccer culture that continues to become richer by the year. But that doesn’t make it simple for the one whose record is broken.

“It’s a weird feeling, it really is,” says Wynalda, “because you can’t go back in time and change all those moments when you should or could have had more goals. I’d be lying to tell you that you don’t have an element of sadness. But it would be more sad if nobody passed my record, and it will be sad if nobody passes Landon’s. And if it happens to be Clint, we should be collectively hoping someone will break that as well, because that means the sport is getting better and better here.”