Clint Dempsey said it himself: All he wanted to do was score goals and go fishing. And it turns out that he’s all out of goals.
After a 14-year career that brought him from Boston to London to Seattle, the 35-year-old Sounders attacker retired on Tuesday. Among all American outfield players, Dempsey put together the most successful European career, and it’s not particularly close. He scored 57 Premier League goals for Fulham and Tottenham — equaling the next three-highest scorers combined. He bows out with 141 USMNT caps to his name, and is tied with Landon Donovan for the most goals in team history. He’s fourth all time in assists, and he’s the only American to score in three separate World Cups.
Dempsey is one of the defining figures in the fledgling history of American soccer, a sport where male legends are few and far between. Shout-out to the Deuce Face:
For Dempsey, it was a career of moments, so we gathered a host of Ringer staffers to recount their favorites.
The Goal Against Ghana in the 2006 World Cup
Ryan O’Hanlon: I knew who Clint Dempsey was, but this is when I first met Deuce:
On the whole, the 2006 World Cup was a disappointment. Four years after a missed handball call and some Oliver Kahn heroics kept the USMNT from reaching the semifinals in Korea/Japan, the federation decided to run it back in Germany with the same coach and most of the same players. That never works (see: Spain 2014, Germany 2018), and for Bruce Arena’s team it resulted in a stale succession of losses and fortunate draws in one of the so-called groups of death. Come the final game against Ghana, the Americans ultimately capitulated, but were briefly still alive, thanks to a 23-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas (where?), who played three seasons of college ball at Furman University (also: where?).
At the time, what struck me most about the goal wasn’t how important it was, or how hard he hit it (if there wasn’t a net on the goal, that thing probably lands somewhere in Poland); no, the self-assurance is what straight-up shocked me. You don’t hit a ball that hard, with the outside of your foot, first time, and into the far-post upper corner unless you know that you’re going to do exactly that. And you especially don’t do that if you’re an American.
The spectrum of emotions Dempsey went through after the ball nearly burned a hole through the net — near-frightening determination transformed into unmitigated joy — is what made him, for my money, the best American soccer player of all time:
In the rubble of the failed 2018 qualification campaign, there’s plenty wrong with American soccer right now — to my mind, the biggest issue is how it mirrors the American economy writ large. The more money you have, the more likely you are to participate at the highest levels. All 23 MLS teams offer scholarships for youth players, but outside of that, access to the best coaching and most competitive playing environments remains prohibitively expensive across the majority of the country.
Dempsey, who grew up in a trailer park, is the exception to the rule — as the legend goes, his parents drove him three hours to practice in Dallas multiple times a week so he could get the best training available. He shouldn’t be used as an example that everything’s fine the way it is; rather, the fact that there aren’t hundreds of other players just like him is all the evidence we need to know that something’s broken.
Deuce is one of a kind — hopefully that doesn’t last forever.
The Audacious Chip Against Juventus in 2010
Donnie Kwak: I listen to innumerable English pundits talk soccer, so forgive me if I forget the exact source here, but last week I heard a host ask the following question: What is the best atmosphere you’ve ever witnessed at a football match? The pundit’s response: Craven Cottage, for Fulham’s round-of-16 Europa League second leg against Juventus on March 18, 2010.
On that ground, in the 82nd minute, Fulham’s Clint Dempsey scored perhaps the biggest goal any American has ever scored in European football, in a match called “the most famous win in [Fulham’s] 131-year history.”
It wasn’t just the impudence of attempting a chip from outside the box at a difficult angle — it was the impudence of attempting a chip from outside the box at a difficult angle against a heavy favorite in the closing minutes of a deadlocked knockout-round match. For full context: Fulham entered the home leg down 3–1 to Juve on aggregate; Juve scored first, but Fabio Cannavaro was sent off; Fulham scored three goals to put the teams level on aggregate; Dempsey was subbed on in the 71st minute; he became a legend by breaking the tie 11 minutes later. Fulham eventually made it to the Europa League final, where they lost to Atlético Madrid in extra time.
But few will remember that final; everyone remembers that Dempsey goal. It featured not only brilliance, but also balls: Deuce’s legacy in two words.
The Goal Against Portugal in the 2014 World Cup
Michael Baumann: I have a somewhat irrational dislike for Clint Dempsey. While acknowledging that he possessed uncommon creativity for an American player and that he was well-deserving of his European success with Fulham, I hated what he came to represent — what people wished Landon Donovan was.
Donovan, for my money the best American outfield player of the pre-Pulisic era, was a tireless runner, a prolific goal scorer, and the USMNT’s crucial playmaker. But he was a diminutive, squeaky-voiced Californian who spent most of his career in MLS, while Dempsey was a big, tough, brash, heavily tattooed Texan who played through his prime in the Premier League. He was, above all else, obvious. Dempsey was fully self-actualized, while Donovan always gave the impression of untapped, and later wasted, potential.
It’s a kind of criticism of male athletes based on masculinity, a retrograde and toxic outlook even without considering that Jürgen Klinsmann banned Donovan from the USMNT for essentially taking a break to sort out mental health issues. It was Dempsey, not Donovan, who became Klinsmann’s captain at the 2014 World Cup. And without Donovan for fans and pundits to push around, Dempsey became a stick to beat Michael Bradley with.
When Jozy Altidore’s injury and Aron Jóhannsson’s ineffectiveness forced both Dempsey and Bradley up the field, Dempsey played well as a center forward while Bradley struggled to adjust to life as a no. 10. Against Portugal, after Bradley spurned an easy chance on goal, Dempsey emerged from a scramble in the box to hip-thrust in what looked like the winner in the 81st minute.
That goal — unorthodox, brave, scored almost literally with his dick — represents Dempsey to me. While Donovan, Bradley, Julian Green, and every other would-be savior left bitter disappointment in American mouths, Dempsey reached his fullest potential: as a mid-table Premier League starter and leader of a blunted World Cup attack. But at least he never promised more.
The Lexus Commercial
Collin Orcutt: Yeah, but what about the time he placed a ball through an open sunroof and into a moving Lexus at sunset? No shade to all of his momentous goals and his impact on the USMNT (really, thank you), but doing this from 30-plus yards out into a moving vehicle?
If you ask me, Dempsey’s bravado and pure skill here are far more impressive than the “no camera tricks” (*snicker*) action on Magic for Humans (we see the composition work, guys). According to the Lexus ad’s shoot director (and personal friend), Pete Matkiwsky, it took Dempsey fewer than 15 attempts to nail this. In fact, he sunk it twice, but the first one was so clean it bounced off the driver’s helmet and back out of the car, so they couldn’t use it. Salute the legend.
The Time He Ripped Up a Ref’s Notebook Like a Badass
Shaker Samman: Forget the dozens of domestic goals both home and abroad. Forget the strikes for the USMNT against Ghana in 2006 or 2014 or any other year, or any other feat of footballing brilliance that you associate with Il Duce. Clint Dempsey’s best moment came in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Years removed from his last full season in Europe, a 32-year-old Dempsey was content to be back in MLS leading the Seattle Sounders. In his first season with the club, they finished top of the table. In his third, they won the league. But the peak of the captain’s Sounders career came in between. Late in a fourth-round matchup with eternal rival Portland and upset by a booking he felt was unwarranted, Dempsey snatched the referee’s notebook and ripped it to pieces.
In the wake of the incident, Dempsey was suspended for three games and stripped of his national team captaincy. All because a ref dared to tread.
The “Don’t Tread” Video
Rodger Sherman: American soccer is perpetually unsure of how to portray itself: Should it try to appeal to American sensibilities to attract fans (i.e. naming a team “the Kansas City Wizards”) or try to emulate European leagues in an attempt to prove its legitimacy (i.e., naming a team “Real Salt Lake,” even though Utah does not have any royalty, Spanish-speaking or otherwise)? Even as American soccer has shown massive increases in popularity, it acts as if it doesn’t belong.
Except, of course, for Clint Dempsey, who never cared whether anybody else thought he belonged. And never was Dempsey more himself than on “Don’t Tread,” his song and music video released by Nike in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup.
None of it makes sense. Why is Dempsey wearing JNCO-level baggy jeans to play soccer? Why is Dempsey bragging about having a gun with an infrared scope on a World Cup promo song? Screwed Up Click member Big Hawk is featured on the song, and says he’ll be at one of Dempsey’s games during the beginning of the video, but he and Dempsey never appear in the same place at the same time — did Big Hawk lie to Clint about going to his soccer game? Is Dempsey — who rap-nicknamed himself “Deuce” because he wore no. 2, which isn’t even a number forwards are supposed to wear — even good at rapping? (“We’re hot, you might think we’re a sun ray” — Verdict: no.)
None of it mattered to Dempsey. He was your average dude from the middle of nowhere in Texas who was hip-hop enough to release a music video driving a candy-painted drop-top and good enough at soccer to finish a season among the top-five goal scorers in the Premier League. He was an American soccer superstar who didn’t think it was weird that he was American and a soccer superstar. He was just Deuce: goal scorer, fisherman, and rapper.
RIP, Big Hawk.