Clint Dempsey impresses in encouraging return to competitive game action

Eighty-five days after hoisting the MLS Cup trophy on a frigid night in Toronto, the Seattle Sounders began their 2017 campaign on the road for the first time since they joined the league in 2009 in what ended up a 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo. Houston blitzed Seattle from the opening whistle and forced the Sounders to play catch-up, something head coach Brian Schmetzer called “a valuable lesson.”

But there was one notable bright spot: Clint Dempsey was back, and in a big way.

Seattle nearly salvaged a point — it did so twice in Houston in stoppage time last season — after Dempsey’s goal in the 58th minute cut the deficit in half. Joevin Jones played a nice cross in from the left side that forced goalkeeper Tyler Deric to parry it away, but the ball fell right to the feet of an awaiting Dempsey, who took one touch before sliding in the Sounders’ opening goal of the 2017 season.

“I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey’s goal on Saturday was a long time coming. He missed the final four months of last season after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and his career may very well have been in jeopardy. He didn’t need to score to validate his return, but seeing Dempsey contribute like, well, Dempsey is a sign that the procedures he went through, the precautions the club took shutting him down and the slow and steady recovery process may just have worked.

“I’m still trying to get to my top level, I’m not there yet,” Dempsey said. “But if you watched preseason, it’s been a steady progression.”

Dempsey’s impact on American soccer is tangible. It’s the reason why so many players around the league are excited to have him back and has rivals expressing their relief for his return to the pitch.

After the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro last summer, Dempsey, Lodeiro and Jordan Morris formed a menacing attacking trio that sparked Seattle’s eventual run to the title, even if Dempsey wasn’t around to help finish it. He ended 2016 with eight goals and two assists in just 17 games.

Dating back to his final three games last season, Dempsey has now scored six goals in his last four matches.

“For me personally after being out for so long, to be able to get back to scoring ways always feels good,” Dempsey said. “That’s what I was brought here to do, to help try to create goals for this team. I’m just going to build upon this performance.

“This was the first 90 minutes that I’ve had since I’ve been out,” he continued. “I’m just trying to contribute and help the team get back on track next game.”

How much Dempsey will realistically be able to contribute this season is still up for debate, but his Week 1 performance offered glimpses of the brilliance, creativity and production of the Dempsey of old, the one who has forever etched his name into the annals of U.S. Soccer. Schmetzer said he ran Dempsey a little longer on Saturday than he would have liked, but the two are in constant discussions with how Dempsey feels on a given day and felt good letting him go 90 minutes.

Dempsey was disappointed with the result on Saturday and spent most of his time postgame lamenting Seattle’s slow start. His attention wasn’t so much on him or his goal or his health, and that’s a good thing. For Dempsey, he’s just glad to be back on the field again and trying to make a difference.

“It’s just fun to be back playing the game you love,” Dempsey said, “and getting back to competing at the highest level.”