Clint Dempsey's Career, Legacy Go Well Beyond the Stats and Numbers

Landon Donovan: Clint Dempsey is as clinical a finisher as I've played with

The announcement was sudden, brief, and included a short statement of thanks that seemed somewhat boilerplate save for the tell-tale “y’all.” There was no soul-baring, one-on-one with a favorite broadcaster, and no weepy news conference—the sort where fellow greats and VIPs fill the room to enhance the occasion and pay their respects. There will be no farewell tour with gifts and video tributes from the opposition.

That means it's perfect. Leave the sentimentality and self-aggrandizement behind, and leave ‘em wanting more. Clint Dempsey retired Wednesday, effective Wednesday. Unvarnished to the last, the 35-year-old Seattle Sounders forward and U.S. national team icon simply and essentially hung a “gone fishin’” sign in his locker. He’ll let us figure out the rest.

And Dempsey left plenty to sort through as he exits the soccer stage almost as abruptly as he took it as a Revolution rookie back in 2004. His list of achievements is long and historic. Dempsey is a three-time U.S. Soccer player of the year, the co-leading scorer in senior national team history and the only American man to strike at three consecutive World Cups. He set a new standard for Yanks abroad, where he twice was named Fulham’s player of the season en route to becoming the top U.S.-born marksman in Premier League annals.

Related: ‘Thank You Deuce:’ U.S. Soccer Greats, Past Clubs Honor Clint Dempsey Upon Retirement

He won three Concacaf Gold Cups and the Bronze Ball at the ’09 Confederations Cup, where he scored in both the semifinal and final. And he mastered a moment like no player before or since, crafting indelible, viral images that captured the collective imagination, personified American ambition and left press conferences and farewell tours unnecessary.

That last part, truly, is where Dempsey excelled. The man who shares the U.S. goal scoring record, Landon Donovan, was a more well-rounded footballer. Donovan was a better athlete and a more effective playmaker, and he could impact or shape a game in a greater number of ways. But while there was a sense for many that Donovan hadn’t plumbed the depths of his talent, that he could be somehow distracted or diverted, Dempsey attacked everything with vigor. For that, he’s more beloved. His story read like a classic American tall tale, in which the will and creativity leading to fame and fortune were forged by those three-hour drives to training, financial challenges, family tragedy and so many pick-up games in the East Texas dust.

“There’s a few differences between me and Landon. I didn’t get started until late. I didn’t get started until I was 20. I turned 21 in my first MLS season, in March,” Dempsey said in 2012. “It’s always been a race against time, really, for me. It’s kind of my mentality, to make up for lost time. That hasn’t changed. That’s why I continue to push myself every year. I want to do something really special in my life. Not that we haven’t done special things already, but something really special, you know?"

So Dempsey (and his parents) pushed himself to youth games in Dallas, over his sister’s untimely death and through Furman University, to MLS and England, and then past the heart trouble that nearly ended his career in 2016. He did so with unapologetic swagger and ultimate confidence, as each measure of success helped strengthen him for the next step.

American soccer yearned for that—someone who refused to accept defeat, someone for whom all things were possible, someone who was resilient and unbowed and cowed by nothing. Dempsey ignored cultural and competitive boundaries. And he confronted every challenge and every defender with the desperation of someone with everything to lose, combined with the fearlessness of someone with nothing. His uncanny knack for finding that balance, along with that legendary swagger, manifested itself in unforgettable images, from “Deuce Face” and that jaw-dropping Europa League chip against Juventus, to his post-goal roar against Ghana in Natal and his assault on a referee’s notebook in Tukwila.

What a career, @clint_dempsey 👏🏻👏🏻 The @ussoccer_mnt great has announced his retirement #ThankYouDeuce ✌🏻

A post shared by Sports Illustrated: Soccer (@si_soccer) on

He doesn’t need the staged photo-ops now. His whole career was an organic, authentic photo-op. And while he didn’t seek out press or any extra attention, he wasn’t shy about reminding you where he’d been and what he’d accomplished. If there ever was a U.S. forward who could tell you how many goals he'd scored on a Saturday wearing white in the rain, it was Dempsey. He didn’t have to pause and think to recall his honors or stats. They were purchased with blood, sweat and tears, and his pride in past achievements strengthened his resolve and fueled his hunger for more.

He bemoaned the headwinds created by managerial turnover abroad, and the perception there of U.S. players. There were times when he grew frustrated by criticism. But he always fought through it, and did so with a blunt, human charisma admired by many. Not everyone could get away with the rap videos, or fishing talk or aloof hustles through the mixed zone. They’d be affectations coming from others. But Dempsey somehow made it work. When he was surly or combative, it was just Clint being Clint. He was still cool. Dempsey was even cool when he missed—he’d have the national team record to himself if he’d converted that penalty in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in 2013. But, hey, “dos a cero.” A lot of people figured he must've missed on purpose.

Dempsey, painfully, also would have the U.S. record if his shot in Trinidad hadn’t hit the post last October. Even Deuce wasn’t allowed to fashion his own ending. He missed Seattle’s 2016 MLS Cup triumph with the heart issue and had an eventful 2017, winning the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award, then enjoying a strong playoff run with the Sounders before a poor showing in the final. His national team year featured a Gold Cup triumph and four qualifying goals, but concluded with that stunning setback in Couva. This year, age and injury limited him to nine starts and one goal. He knew it was time.

“After a lot of thought, my family and I have decided that this is the right time for me to step away from the game,” Dempsey said in his Wednesday statement. "I'd like to thank all of the teammates, coaches and support staff that I've worked with throughout my career. It has always been my dream to make it as a pro. I'm grateful to have been on this ride. I would like to thank all of the fans who have supported me throughout my career with the New England Revolution, Fulham, Tottenham, Seattle Sounders and the U.S. men's national team. Y'all have always made me feel at home, and it is something that I will always remember.”

Related: Sarachan to Turn to Youth Again, But Hints Past USMNT Stars Maintain Future Roles

And he will always be remembered. Speaking to SI.com on Wednesday, U.S. coach Dave Sarachan said, “If you take the categories of a player—speed, power, agility, endurance—Clint wouldn’t win a lot of those categories. But it didn’t matter, because at the end of the day, he was so clinical in his approach to the game and his finishing ability.

“He was his own guy as a striker, as a player, and he offered such a unique skill set. From day one, back when we were looking at him as a prospect for the draft and all the way through his career, the thing you’d always say—and our good friend and former [USA] assistant Mooch Myernick would always say—‘He just tries s-*-*-t.’ He can pull off plays in such a unique way, and his record speaks for itself, whether he’s playing in MLS or overseas. He’ll go down really as one of the best in U.S. soccer history.”

Dempsey would remind you of his resume, but his career and charisma clearly added up to a whole lot more than that. He is American soccer’s foremost ambassador of confidence and clutch, skill and swagger, and for the foreseeable future, he’ll be its most compelling story.

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