PORTLAND, Ore. — It might be time to put to bed the notion that Clint Dempsey is in a slump. His hat trick in the Seattle Sounders’ 4-4 comeback draw against the Portland Timbers on Saturday was his most impressive feat in a string of strong recent performances.
After a one-goal, one-assist 2013 season and month-long loan to Fulham where he struggled for playing time, Dempsey came under heavy scrutiny from fans and media. Early this season, head coach Sigi Schmid backed his most expensive player by calling the reaction “a little bit unfair.”
Only strong performances would get the critics off Dempsey’s back — especially after receiving a two-game suspension for an off-the-ball incident in a 2-1 loss to Toronto FC in March. He started with a goal and assist in his first two MLS games and followed up with a strong 90-minute performance for the United States national team in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Mexico.
On Saturday, Dempsey continued to break the tension by bagging three goals in a game for the first time since January 2012, when he played for Fulham full-time. He celebrated his first by defiantly sprinting toward the stands at Providence Park, arms outstretched.
“I’m not really trying to make a statement. I’m just trying to enjoy playing my ball here with the Seattle Sounders,” Dempsey told reporters after the game, later adding, “You always feel good when you’re contributing, scoring and getting assists. I’m in a good rhythm at the moment, and it’s about continuing that form.”
While Dempsey remained coy, Schmid said what his captain wouldn’t.
“He wants to lead this team,” the coach said. “He wants to show that last year was not the Clint Dempsey that we’re going to see this year, and he wants to show people he’s ready for the World Cup coming up, and I think he did that today.”
Dempsey’s first goal equalized the match at 2-2 before halftime. He controlled Obafemi Martins’ pass into the penalty area and, unmarked, slotted a shot inside the far post with his left foot.
In the second half, the Timbers took a 4-2 lead after stunning finishes by Diego Chará, celebrating his 28th birthday by scoring his second of the game, and Maximiliano Urruti. With five minutes remaining, the result seemed secure, even though the Sounders pressed.
Then, Dempsey slid to knock home a shot from on top of the six-yard box after a heavy first touch on Lamar Neagle’s cross. He didn’t celebrate, instead grabbing the ball to return to the center circle, the Sounders still down a goal.
Almost exactly a minute later, DeAndre Yedlin went down in the penalty area under a challenge from Ben Zemanski. Referee Hilario Grajeda pointed to the spot, but Sounders newcomer Gonzalo Pineda grabbed the ball before Dempsey could get to it.
“I’m the official penalty taker, so I got to the ball first,” Pineda told SI.com in his native Spanish after the game. “Clint asked me, ‘Are you sure you’re going to score?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Pineda laughed at the recollection before saying he was more than happy to temporarily relinquish his duty to Dempsey so he could complete his hat trick. Dempsey repaid Pineda by rolling the ball coolly down the middle of the goal to secure a vital point on the road.
“Individual success is less important for me,” Pineda said of his decision. “It’s important that Clint continues to feel confident because he’s one of our key attacking players.”
With a smile, Dempsey said, “Maybe after the game, I’ll get him a soda pop.”
Nobody would fault Dempsey for having one of his own after a crowded past week. Schmid said he never considered starting Dempsey on the bench despite him playing a full game in Phoenix for the national team in midweek.
Clearly, Dempsey had enough rest while sitting the past two league games. Two-thirds of his hat trick came in the last five minutes, and his involvement in the game grew as the match progressed.
“It was important for me to go on loan and to get my body right, get my fitness level up. Coming back into MLS, I felt like the games that I’ve played in, I’ve been able to contribute in a positive way,” Dempsey said. “It’s about moving forward. … I was a little bit tired [on Saturday], but now, I’m excited about getting a full week with the team in training and looking forward to the next game.”