For a guy who generally shied away from the spotlight off the field and most certainly did not fully embrace the media in his time as a superstar, Clint Dempsey is evidently a natural on camera.
The last that most in the U.S. soccer sphere saw of Dempsey, he was abruptly retiring from his playing career in the middle of the 2018 MLS season, heading to the lakes, streams and woods of North Carolina for a fishing and hunting extravaganza, time with his family and, as he calls it, becoming an Uber driver for his five kids. Yet he has resurfaced with CBS as part of its broadcast team for the Concacaf Nations League, and it's quite clear now that, to tweak the famous phrase, form is temporary, but swagger is permanent.
Perhaps the only thing in American soccer previously more unexpected than a U.S. men's national team player having an active role in winning the UEFA Champions League was Dempsey not just taking on a broadcast gig but thriving in it. In Thursday night's debut, as an on-site studio analyst for the USA's semifinal vs. Honduras alongside former U.S. teammates Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies and host Kate Abdo, Dempsey was a sunglasses-wearing, quip-dropping sensation.
At his best during his playing days, Dempsey was loose, unrestricted and able to express himself. As Bruce Arena famously said of him, "He tries s---." Over time, it became clear that he could get away with doing and saying things that others couldn't, purely because he was Clint Dempsey. A career's worth of iconic moments and Deuce Faces builds that credibility in a player, and that credibility still lingers years after his playing career ended. He might not crave or need the spotlight like Zlatan Ibrahimović, but he's the closest thing U.S. soccer has ever had to the charismatic Swedish star in terms of being a player with a brazen, don't-give-a-you-know-what mentality and personality and the ability to back it up by walking the walk. And that all translates to his new gig. There are things Dempsey can do at a broadcast desk and a way that he can do them that others simply don't have the cachet or clout to pull off.
The authentic and genuine Dempsey experience has always been unique and pure entertainment. This is a player who once told Sports Illustrated that "there's no better feeling than getting crunk after scoring an important goal." When Dempsey retired, it was with a Marshawn Lynch–like Instagram post, with a simple caption of "Thank you it's been real," coupled with a peace sign emoji that reflected his nickname and general vibe.
In case you were wondering if that personality and vibe have changed or become more dull over time, they have not. In one instance, Dempsey described Gio Reyna's sensational move that nearly resulted in the U.S.'s opener after he dribbled through and dodged multiple Honduran defenders as "chopping 'em up like a hibachi grill."
Upon reflecting on his career on-air, he had no problem casually saying that he saved his red cards for MLS (he's right; he never drew any for the national team or while playing for Fulham and Tottenham in England, yet he had four with the Seattle Sounders, including a famous one in the U.S. Open Cup when he ripped up a referee's notebook), and he brought an ideal balance of jokes made with his Texas drawl and unadulterated laugh and sound analysis and opinion of what he'd seen from his perch inside the stadium.
He perhaps gave himself a bit too much credit for predicting the 1–0 result given that it came after an initial call that the U.S. would score early and win by three or four goals, but ultimately, who cares? His analysis of U.S. striker Josh Sargent was where his expertise was most appreciated, astute and relatable to his own experiences as a player. Where some saw a forward not doing enough for an attack that was sputtering to create chances, Dempsey saw one chasing, pressing, dropping back and doing more to impact the game.
Dempsey had actually stepped out of the wilderness a few weeks prior on The Crack Podcast with Onyewu, former U.S. star DaMarcus Beasley and Mabricio Wilson. He joked about not knowing how to work a video chat while taping the show (it actually didn't seem like a joke at all) and said that he'd been so far removed from the spotlight because, "nobody can catch me, bro; I'm in the woods with no cellphone service!"
The conversation eventually turned to his playing career and the originality of his style, even within the confines of a certain game plan or system. As was the case Thursday night, surrounded by his friends and former teammates in a relaxed environment that brought out the best of him, Dempsey was brazen and real.
"I have to put my flavor in the recipe, otherwise I'm not eating it," Dempsey said.
That paid off in a playing career that has gone down as one of the best ever for a U.S. international. As it turns out, the kid from Nacogdoches's approach works on TV, too.
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