TORONTO — To cover Clint Dempsey is to understand that his famous game face frequently remains in place for some time after a match has ended. And if you cover him, you may as well embrace that fact. Because it’s that focused fury, the ever-present chip on his accomplished shoulder—the Deuce Face—that’s made him the player he is.
Its origins already are the stuff of American soccer legend: the three-hour car rides to training as a youth, the unexpected and tragic death of his older sister and the desperate race to “make up for lost time.” Dempsey is now 34. But he didn’t make his pro debut until he was 21, and he’s been on the hunt since then. In exchange for the chance to watch and chronicle Dempsey’s unique combination of creativity and clutch, the media accepts the Deuce Face delay. His focus doesn’t just fade away at the final whistle. It’s often stays attached to him for a while, lingering, as he leaves the field and meets the media. And that’s obvious to all, whether Dempsey is answering postgame questions in his monotone autopilot or staring straight ahead as he walks right by.
All of which makes the image last week at CenturyLink Field one to savor. There was Dempsey—standing next to ESPN’s Julie Stewart-Binks shortly after the Seattle Sounders clinched a return trip to the MLS Cup final—with a huge grin on his face, his daughter by his side, and his son Jackson (he’s got two of each) sitting atop his shoulders wearing that most Dempsey of outfits—a rave green jersey and a pair of camo pants. At the risk of reading too much into it, it certainly appeared as if the Deuce Face facade had fallen away a bit earlier than usual. Dempsey was present, and he was soaking every bit of it in.
That's been a big part of the story of this season of second chances.
"Maybe he changed his mentality a little bit. Scary moments can do that,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan told Tacoma's The News Tribune. "Clint has always been motivated. He just hasn’t shown it. Now he shows it a little bit, and it is incredible to see. He is a guy that is always happy."
A year ago, as Seattle was surging toward its first MLS Cup title, Dempsey was a passenger, forced to sit and watch as heart trouble threatened his career. Now, he’s enjoying a new lease on his professional life, emerging as a key figure in a championship defense that will culminate Saturday afternoon with a rematch against Toronto FC here at BMO Field. Dempsey technically has an MLS crown to his credit. He tallied eight goals in 17 games in 2016, was at the final and celebrated in the locker room with a medal around his neck. But make no mistake, Dempsey–who also lost two finals as a member of the New England Revolution–is relishing the opportunity to win one on the field, in uniform, and on his terms. He’s relishing it and focused on making the most of it.
“You start enjoying [playing] more because you’re still able to compete at a high level, make an impact and play the game you love for a little bit longer,” Dempsey said during Thursday afternoon’s pre-MLS Cup final press conference. “So, yeah, in that aspect, you do appreciate it a little bit more. But I’ve kind of been someone who’s always never really taken much for granted. I’ve always been racing against time, feeling like I kind of started a little bit later than some of my peers. But I’ve been happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish, and there’s more work to be done.”
So this season has been something like a career in microcosm. There are goals to be achieved and time is short. We compliment and congratulate those who play like there’s nothing to lose. But what if there is? Maybe there’s also something to be said for playing as if everything’s at stake. The MLS Comeback Player of the Year scored 12 goals during the regular season—tied for the third-highest total of his career—and he’s added three more during Seattle’s 3-0-1 playoff run. His brace in the Western Conference semifinal decider against the rival Vancouver Whitecaps was all the Sounders needed to advance, 2-0, on aggregate. And he netted the second goal of a 3-0 win in the second leg of the conference finals against the Houston Dynamo. There’s no official playoff golden boot. But if there was, Dempsey would hold the lead on his own. And there’s no question he knows it.
No one suggested the Sounders were better off without Dempsey last fall. They managed. But when you’re that competitive, that driven, the joy in seeing your teammates succeed is always going to be tempered by the disappointment that you weren’t there to help—that you didn’t play your part and may never again have the chance to do so. Now he’s got that chance.
Dempsey has an eye on returning to the Sounders next season. He's been negotiating with the club. But finals aren’t guaranteed, and with the U.S. national team facing a barren stretch and his international career likely at or near its end, Saturday’s game very well could be last big one he plays.
“I’ve just been lucky to get in opportunities to play in big games,” he said in a recent interview posted by the Sounders. “A big thing for me, losing my sister at a young age, that was real tough and [it helps you] not take things for granted and to work and and try to make the most of everything. When you’ve got the opportunity, you have to make it happen or maybe you don’t ever get [another] chance.
“We’ve done some good things here,” he continued. “We won a Supporters' Shield. We’ve won an Open Cup. I wasn’t able to be a part of the MLS Cup, but in a small way, I was, in terms of playing half the season. But hopefully there’s more to be written.”
The Sounders beat TFC on penalties last year after a 0-0 draw, during which the visitors didn’t muster a single shot on target.
“Certainly for the soccer pundits, for the sportscasters, for some of the people that classified our win last year as ‘no shots on goal,’ I’d like to silence some of those critics,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said this week.
What Seattle lacked that day at BMO Field was a finisher who could make the most of a half-chance. That’s Dempsey’s calling card. And on Saturday, considering his focus and form, he’s the weapon that may just silence those detractors and deliver a second MLS Cup to the Sounders.
“Last year was a very, very challenging year for him,” Schmetzer told SI.com during a Tuesday conference call. “I thought he took adversity and he dealt with it in a professional way. He was very supportive of his teammates. But at the end, when we’re having our end-of-the-year meeting he did say to me, ‘You know what? I want to go out’—at that point in time, remember, he wasn’t 100% sure he was going to be able to make it back—he said he would prefer to go out on his feet.
“He’s recovered from a pretty significant situation—a very significant situation—one that we can never understand exactly what all of the things that he had to go through to get himself back on the field, and he’s put himself in a place with his teammates to actually end … on a good note,” Schmetzer continued. “I’m very proud of the fact that he’s come back. I think it’s a magnificent achievement, and I also know that he is absolutely hungry to get out on that field and to make a contribution to the team, to help the team win. So in that sense, I think you will see vintage Clint Dempsey—a very motivated, very deadly goal scorer when he’s motivated.”
Speaking with Dempsey on a non-game day can be a far different sort of experience. One-on-one, he can affable, earnest, and unafraid to reveal his inspiration—whether it’s his childhood, or the Champions League, or the list of stats and accomplishments that might indicate that he has, indeed, made up for lost time. Dempsey did one such interview in the spring with Seattle’s local Fox affiliate. And he described in detail his heart palpitations, the uncertainty and treatment, his gratitude to the Sounders and, months before the playoffs even began, what winning a championship on the field might mean.
“I was happy to see the boys do it [last year] but, yeah, I was wishing I could be out there,” he told Q13 TV. “If you could write a storybook type of movie, that’s what you’d want. You’d want to be able to repeat, come back and play a part in that process—or play more of a part, I should say. That would be great if we could do it. … That definitely would be special.”