Shortly after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, United States men’s national team star forward and captain Clint Dempsey was a guest on CBS’ “The Late Show with David Letterman.” After covering topics like his goal against Ghana, his time in England and his return to Major League Soccer, Letterman asked Dempsey about the lucrative contract he had signed with the Seattle Sounders one year prior.
A reserved, thoughtful person, Dempsey was aware that, as one of the greatest Americans soccer players, he could help grow the game United States, inspiring a legion of young soccer players to pursue professional careers.
“The cool thing is you’re starting to see more American players become Designated Players in the [United] States,” said Dempsey. “I think that’s good for the kids to see that, if you work hard, you can make a good living for yourself and be able to take care of your family, and also enjoy the game that you love on home soil.”
Beyond the symbolism of the USMNT captain and Fulham legend plying his trade in MLS, Dempsey’s decision to join the Sounders had a tangible, meaningful and lasting impact on a generation of players coming through Sounders Academy.
Sounders Academy and S2 players training alongside Dempsey during the 2018 MLS preseason | Mike Fiechtner
According to 17-year-old Sounders FC 2 midfielder Azriel Gonzalez, who joined Sounders Academy when he was 13, Dempsey’s iconic presence at the club loomed large for all the youth team prospects.
“I remember in March 2016, I was invited to train with the First Team during preseason,” recalled Gonzalez. “When Dempsey walked into the locker room, I was really nervous immediately because I knew he was a big star here. I knew what he had done with the national team, and I knew he was a big-time player. To step into a locker room with him was kind of overwhelming at the time.
“I remember during the first training session, he was just going through it and scoring goals like it was nothing, while I was just barely keeping up with the pace and the speed. I just remember I wanted to get to that level one day.”
In the aftermath of his retirement on Wednesday, Head Coach Brian Schmetzer spoke glowingly about Dempsey’s influence on the young players at the club making their way up the pipeline.
“I’ve seen it firsthand,” Schmetzer said. “I’ve seen [Dempsey] take young guys aside and help them with their game. Some of the stories he’s been able to relay to the young guys, some of the experiences he’s gone through and what helped him to be successful in some of those moments, he’s already shared all that so it’s not a hope, he’s already done it.
“He leads by example,” he continued, “Some of the examples he sets, the young kids can look at when Clint was in the moment and really hungry for goals. That’s a learning moment. When he pulled young [S2 midfielder] Ray Serrano aside, I loved it. That was Clint. That’s who he was.”
Dempsey with Ray Serrano during preseason
S2 center back and Sounders Academy alum Sam Rogers remembers when he first heard that Dempsey had signed with the Sounders. A Seattle native and lifelong Sounders fan, Rogers was understandably ecstatic about Deuce’s decision to sign with the club.
“I was really excited because it was also my first year in Sounders Academy when he came to the club,” said Rogers. “It was really cool to be able to come watch him train when I was like 14, and knowing we had a big U.S. icon at our club.”
Rogers, 19, worked his way through the youth system and broke into the professional ranks with S2 when he was 17, three years after he’d joined the Academy. For a young center back adjusting to the speed of the professional game, there was no better way to test his abilities than to go against the joint all-time leading scorer for the United States men’s national team.
“When you’re in the Academy at 14 or 15, and you see Clint Dempsey’s on the field next to you, it’s huge motivation to go make it over there and try to see if you can play against him,” said Rogers. “It was definitely challenging because he’s so good on the ball and so smart about his movement. A few years ago, when I first trained with the First Team, having to 1-v-1 against him, he definitely put me in my place a few times. But it’s part of learning because you don’t want to play against average, you want to play against the best players you can play against.”
Even though Dempsey has decided to hang up his cleats, his legacy will live on as a generation of Sounders Academy players who learned from him on a daily basis try to follow in his footsteps.