TUKWILA, Wash. — Seattle Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey announced on Tuesday that Clint Dempsey will be out for the remainder of the season, a cautionary but essential measure taken after the team learned of its star striker's irregular heartbeat last month.
Lagerwey said the Sounders are hopeful Dempsey will be able to return in 2017, though there will not be any additional updates on his status until preseason camp early next year.
“We simply haven’t been able to get to a point where we felt comfortable there was a realistic chance [he’d be able to come back],” Lagerwey said. “We are not willing to put any pressure on this. His return to play is not important relative to his health, both short term and long term.
“We feel that by ruling him out today,” Lagerwey continued, “it puts us in the best position to eventually get him back hopefully for the 2017 season.”
The Sounders went public with Dempsey's diagnosis on Aug. 26, and he left he team shortly thereafter to have a procedure done to address the issue. He returned to training briefly on Sept. 14 before leaving again last week to undergo further testing.
Lagerwey said earlier this month he was "cautiously optimistic" that Dempsey could return before the end of the year, but on Tuesday it was clear that his season is over.
"We feel like this is the right thing for Clint," Lagerwey said, "and to get him healthy."
Lagerwey said the team has been monitoring potential issues with Dempsey's heart for two months and that recent tests showed an irregularity that had to be addressed.
“One of those tests came back with some data that showed an irregularity, and we then took him out,” Lagerwey said. “…. It was something that we had found over the course of playing for us. We had been tracking and monitoring him for some time. It popped up, and it’s something we have to take care of. We can’t take any risks with something as serious as this.”
Dempsey is expected to undergo tests and treatment both in Seattle and elsewhere, leading the Sounders to end speculation about his health and his whereabouts at the team's training facility with the announcement on Tuesday.
Said Lagerwey: "It just provides some clarity for everybody."
The loss of Dempsey hurts not only the Sounders, but the United States national team as well. He is the country’s second all-time leading goalscorer and will likely be unavailable for selection for the U.S.’ upcoming friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand in October, as well as key World Cup qualifying matches against Mexico and Costa Rica in November.
Lagerwey said the Sounders have been in regular communication with U.S. Soccer and that the federation is "philosophically on the same page" as the club going forward.
“[Dempsey is] arguably the best American field player this country has ever produced,” Sounders interim head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “You can throw [Landon] Donovan into the group, but Clint was more creative, he’s deadly in front of goal…How do you replace him? It’s tough.”
Sounders forward and Dempsey’s former USMNT teammate Herculez Gomez echoed Schmetzer’s sentiments.
“[Dempsey is] such an important player not just to this team but to this country,” Gomez said. “He’s arguably the best player to ever don a U.S. national team jersey, so it’s a big loss for U.S. Soccer.
“But it’s not about Clint Dempsey the soccer player, it’s about Clint Dempsey the person and the family man that he is.”
The Sounders have gone 2-1-1 since Dempsey was diagnosed on Aug. 26 and have another must-win game against the Chicago Fire on Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field (7:30 p.m. PT; JOEtv, ROOT Sports (outside Seattle); KIRO 97.1FM, El Rey 1360AM). Schmetzer had said previously that the morale of the group was high when Dempsey initially returned and that his presence had boosted the team’s spirits, but he praised the mental toughness of the group and the ability to focus on the task at hand.
“It’s a job and we have to get back to work, we have a big game tomorrow,” Schmetzer said. “I think this team is strong enough to deal with adversity…We miss [Dempsey], but we’ve had some good results.”
The pinnacle of those performances came last Sunday against the Galaxy, a 4-2 win at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., the Galaxy’s first loss at home all season and the Sounders’ first win there since 2009. With five matches remaining, Seattle is just three points out of a postseason spot with two games in hand. Things have been going the Sounders' way the last two months, even with Dempsey sidelined for half of it.
“At no point here did anyone hit the panic button this season,” Gomez said. “Anytime you’re missing a piece like [Dempsey], it’s going to hurt. But guys have put in a little bit more, we’re picking up wins, we’re grinding out results.”
The Sounders still have a lot to play for this season and will be playing for Dempsey as well over the next five matches and into a potential postseason berth. Dempsey is still under contract until the end of next season and could very well rejoin Seattle next year. Lagerwey gave no indication that this condition, at least the extent of which they know now, would threaten Dempsey’s career entirely.
“Clint has overcome a lot,” Lagerwey said, “and I have every hope that he’s going to overcome this as well.”