Clint Dempsey, The Competitor: A look inside the greatest player in U.S. men’s national team history

NOTE: This is a feature in September’s edition of Sounders Monthly. It will be available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.


It’s been over a decade since Clint Dempsey achieved his childhood dream.

June 17, 2006. The USA was coming off a disappointing 3-0 FIFA World Cup opening loss to the Czech Republic. Italy was next up and Dempsey, who did not see the field in the first match, was inserted into the starting lineup against the eventual world champion.

He played with a reckless abandon, running at defenders, whipping in crosses and proving he belonged on the field with the best in the world.

Five days later against Ghana, with the USA trailing 1-0 and needing a result to advance out of the group, Dempsey held off a defender as he raced onto a DaMarcus Beasley cross, firing home with his right foot and giving his country hope.

Ghana would win the game 2-1, eliminating the U.S. from the 2006 FIFA World Cup, but at just 23 years old, the Nacogdoches, Texas, native had reached the goal he’s worked for his whole life.

“It brought a lot of peace because of the grind,” Dempsey said. “All those trips back and forth to Dallas for training, three hours there and back and not knowing if it was ever going to happen. Just to keep working so hard and not making national teams, or making national teams and then with the U-20s I didn’t play much.

“Then in ’06, finally getting the opportunity to play significant minutes, and to score, it was very fulfilling and brought me peace because I knew I could play at the highest level and succeed.”

 
***

Dempsey is as competitive as any person you will ever meet. Be it fishing, golf, dominoes or Mario Kart, if there’s a way to keep score, it’s a good bet that he is playing to win. He wants to be the best.

That competitive spirit has been on display from a very early age.

Farshid Niroumand, who coached
 Dempsey, his older brother Ryan and his younger brother Lance at Nacogdoches High School, remembers a young Clint showing up for local summer soccer
camps with a water jug on his arm, ready 
to take on all challengers no matter what age or skill level.

“Right there you knew he had a lot of desire and you knew he wanted to compete with the bigger boys,” Niroumand said.

Ryan, five years Clint’s senior, was a star
 at Nacogdoches, a perennial powerhouse program in East Texas, and was the first member of the Dempsey family to join a Dallas-area soccer club in search of a higher level of competition. Clint soon followed, and by the time he was a freshman it was clear that he was ahead of the game.

“When he came to the high school I realized he was good enough to play for the varsity,” Niroumand said. “Physically he was very small, but he had some tenacity. So, because of his tenacity and skill and desire, I said, ‘Let’s put him in the varsity because he makes a difference,’ and sure enough he did. It was a very pleasant surprise.”

Making the varsity squad as a freshman may seem like a small thing now, but at the time in Nacogdoches it was rarity. The Nacogdoches program was loaded with talent, and despite his obvious skill, his small stature as a freshman made for an uphill climb.

“I remember being so slow they called me Turbo,” Dempsey said with a laugh. “Not that I’ve ever been fast, but I always thought that was funny.

“You had to push your game, figure out ways to adapt, use your skill and your intelligence, and as you grew older you started to catch them with your physical side. It was a great opportunity to test myself, for sure, playing against people who are older than you and more athletic than you.”

It was a challenge he quickly conquered.

After contributing heavily to the team as 
a freshman, Dempsey hit a growth spurt. By the end of his sophomore season he was among the best players in the district. Dempsey finished his high school career in 2001 as a three-time district champion and the district MVP.

As Niroumand recalled: “Clint, his desire, his commitment to the game and him being a student of the game, always separated him from the others. On top of that, he had 
a great attitude that ‘I am as good as anyone else and I’m going to prove it to you. Either respect me, or I’m going to embarrass you.’”

He was also making a name for himself
 on the national club circuit with the Dallas Texans and with the state and regional team. Even with the time constraints that came from traveling around the state and country to play, he always managed to keep on top of the other things that were necessary for him to succeed despite the sometimes frustrating path he was forced to take.

“I saw a different side of Clint Dempsey that most people never see,” Niroumand said. “I saw him when he was very happy, jubilant, and I saw him when he was depressed. I saw him when he was in the classroom. I saw his conduct.

“He was academically very intelligent. He would spend a lot of time practicing, a lot of time on the road and getting back to town late at night, and he still had great grades, [and] was a member of the National Honor Society.”

Dempsey’s rise to prominence came relatively quickly.

Following a standout college career at Furman University and a stint with the U.S. Under-20 national team, Dempsey was taken eighth overall in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft and right from the start the team that he fell to, the New England Revolution, felt like they had a special player on their hands.

Paul Mariner, an assistant coach with the Revolution at the time, remembers having a conversation with then-New England Head Coach Steve Nicol during the team’s training camp in the Azores as the two were helping set up for training.

“So we’re carrying the goals out and Stevie says, ‘We’ve got to find a place for this kid. We’ve got to change the system. We’ve got to come up with some idea because he’s the real deal. This guy’s got to play.’”

It didn’t take long for the Revolution to find a place for him to flourish. Dempsey finished his first professional season having helped his side to the Eastern Conference finals and won MLS Rookie of the Year despite breaking his jaw during the season.

“He had it all, to be honest,” Mariner said. “His work ethic, he would listen to us and he would put into practice what we were trying to do as a team on the field. Technically, a very, very confident player on the ball, his first touch, and he would try the old no-look pass. He’s a very entertaining player to watch and we were thrilled to get him.”

Dempsey’s play in 2004 earned him recognition on the national stage as well. His first chance with the senior national team came against Jamaica in a November World Cup qualifier that same year.

A spot on the U.S.’ 2005 Gold Cup roster soon followed, and when it came time for Bruce Arena to select a squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Dempsey’s name was on the list.

“He’s unorthodox in his methods and in scoring goals,” Arena said of the man he brought in the national team all those years ago. “Whether it’s off a set piece or in the run of play, he’s an extremely creative attacking player, he’s a very confident player, he believes he can score goals and he does.”

As Arena sees it, those same qualities were on display even as Dempsey was trying to find his footing at the international level.

“As a young player he was like that,” he said. “He’s always had an aggressive mentality. 
It’s been said many times he plays a little bit with a chip on his shoulder, maybe not as much anymore, but he’s a real competitor and he gets out there and he believes he’s a goalscorer. And he proves it most of the times he steps on the field.”

When Dempsey made his way to Seattle in 2013, the days of needing to prove himself as a player were long gone.

In the years between that first World Cup and his move back to MLS, he had established himself as one of the top players in the English top flight with Fulham, setting the club’s Premier League goalscoring record and closing the 2011/2012 season with 17 league goals, good enough for joint fourth on the scoring charts. He had also grown into one of the key figures for the U.S. national team, helping the side to the 2009 Confederations Cup final and to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

When the chance came for the Sounders to sign him from Tottenham, it was, as Adrian Hanauer said, “kind of a no-brainer.”

The Sounders’ majority owner says he and 
his partner Joe Roth had admired Dempsey from afar for years and had brought his name up several times as a sort of dream signing. Though Hanauer admits that he felt there was little chance of it happening, the club stayed in touch with Lyle Yorks, Dempsey’s agent, and the league offices. In the summer of 2013 it all came together.

“One day in the summer of 2013, Joe got a call from the commissioner, I got a call from [MLS Executive Vice President, Competition & Player Relations] Todd Durbin, saying ‘Hey, I think there’s a chance to bring Clint back to MLS,’ and Joe and I had one 15-second conversation and said, ‘Yep, let’s try to get this done,” Hanauer recalled.

“It was obviously the quality Clint brings on the field, but his determination, his attitude, his grit, his...kind of a swagger that he brought,” Hanauer continued. “[We] thought that it would help us win games but also play good soccer.”

While Dempsey’s return to MLS, just a year after making a move Tottenham, and with him still in the prime of his career, caught many people off guard at the time, the reasoning behind it isn’t confusing to those who know him best.

“The one thing Clint has always valued above his career is his family,” said Michael Villarreal, a high school teammate and long-time friend. “It was a shock to see him come back just before a World Cup in
 a way, but at the same time it wasn’t a shock because coming back to the States offered him a chance to be closer to his family back home and to be able to raise his children in America.”

As Dempsey puts it: “I got the opportunity 
to come back to MLS after playing for six
 or seven years in Europe and, for me, I was excited about the challenge because they moved mountains to get me. It was a great opportunity for me to come back to the States and raise my kids, because they were getting older. I wanted them to have some of the same experiences as me growing up, but I also wanted to be closer to family after being gone so long and seeing grandparents getting older and stuff like that, and I wanted to make the most of family time.

“I also wanted to come back to help grow the game in the States and I was fortunate to be able to come to Seattle because where else in MLS could you go where the fans 
are so passionate and create such a great atmosphere?”

Dempsey’s move has, in a very real way, helped grow the game — at least in MLS. Since his signing with Seattle, U.S. national team standouts like Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya and Jozy Altidore have made similar moves back to MLS from Europe, helping erase the stigma that the quality of the league wasn’t high enough for international-quality players.

It has also allowed many people to see the other side of him, away from the field, where he’s fully embraced the love and adoration he’s gotten from the hometown fans. Dempsey hasn’t lost that competitive edge, he’s still a fighter on the field, still wants to be the best, but from trading popcorn for a jersey to walking onto the pitch with his children, he has shown a softer side in Seattle, as well.

“I think Clint has opened up a little bit and certainly opened up to our fan base,” Hanauer said.

After a recent fan event in Seattle, Hanauer recalled running into Dempsey who, along with his teammates, had just spent hours signing memorabilia and taking photos and being pleased with his star man’s reaction to the time with the fans.

“He was awesome,” Hanauer said. “He was in good spirits, understood that it was good for our sport in this country, that it was good for our club and that it was important to the fans.

“I don’t know how Clint was necessarily in the early days in MLS and in Europe,” Hanauer continued, “but he certainly, to me, has become a great citizen, a great young man, a great family man and someone who, when it’s all said and done, we will be extremely proud to have had him don the Sounders jersey for these years.” 

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