Time is running out for Clint Dempsey to make his mark in MLS Cup playoffs
Clint Dempsey has as glittering a résumé as one can find for an American player. He remains tied with Landon Donovan for the most goals in United States men's national team history, with 57. His exploits at the club level, in particular the parts of seven seasons he spent with Premier League side Fulham, are impressive as well.
Yet there is one stage where Dempsey, 34, hasn't had things go his way. That would be the MLS Cup playoffs, and time is running out to set that right.
In Dempsey's seven previous seasons as an MLS player, the Seattle Sounders forward has scored just four goals and added three assists in 19 postseason games. While that strike rate doesn't approach Fredy Montero-like levels of futility -- the current Vancouver Whitecaps forward scored his first-ever playoff goal during the knockout round after playing more than 800 postseason minutes, most of those with the Sounders -- it is certainly well below what one might expect out of Dempsey, even against the tighter defenses seen in the postseason. Consider that his time with Fulham saw him score 50 goals in 188 league appearances.
Granted, some context is necessary in terms of Dempsey's playoff performances. He spent the vast majority of his time with the New England Revolution playing as a central midfielder in support of forwards Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan. He played even further away from goal during his rookie season in 2004, oftentimes deployed alongside holding midfielder Shalrie Joseph. Dempsey operated out of midfield for much of his time with Fulham as well.
In Seattle, Dempsey has played more as a forward, and as such has tended to find the net with a tad more frequency. In 10 playoff appearances with the Sounders, he has three goals. Not awful, but not the kind of form that will spur a team on to a title.
But Dempsey's playoff disappointments go beyond mere numbers. He had a penalty shootout attempt saved by then-D.C. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando, which propelled DCU into the 2004 MLS Cup final at New England's expense. He was a peripheral figure in the 2005 MLS Cup final loss to the LA Galaxy. In 2006, an ankle injury limited his availability, with Dempsey forced into a substitute's role in that year's MLS Cup final defeat to the Houston Dynamo.
Then of course there was the heart ailment that sidelined Dempsey during the Sounders' run to the MLS Cup title last season. One of the more enduring images of the run-up to the final was that of Dempsey working out off to the side while his teammates went through their final paces. Dempsey was no doubt thrilled at the Sounders' victory, but it's not quite as fulfilling as being on the field, contributing to a memorable win, and letting go with a primal scream while raising the trophy. In terms of MLS success, there is still one goal for Dempsey to accomplish.
Now the window for Dempsey to deliver an impact postseason performance is closing rapidly, at least in Seattle, and not just because he was suspended for the first-leg draw in Vancouver last Sunday. Dempsey's contract runs through the end of this season, with the Sounders having a club option for next year. It is unclear at the moment if the Sounders are willing to bring him back and pay him a wage commensurate with the $3.89 million in guaranteed compensation he made this season.
There is also the reality that this is really Nico Lodeiro's team now, especially after the performances the Uruguayan turned in on the road to last year's MLS Cup. Dempsey and Lodeiro have long seemed to be an odd fit, especially given Dempsey's penchant for dropping into midfield to get more touches. There seems little doubt that the club's direction will be led by Lodeiro.
The failure of the U.S. men's national team to qualify for the World Cup would appear to loosen the bonds even further. There will be no World Cup buzz to drive marketing and the like. And for Dempsey himself, there is no chance of participating in a fourth World Cup to drive him back into the Sounders' collective arms.
For now, Dempsey still has something left to give. His competitiveness remains white-hot, and his strike rate this season of 12 goals in 25 appearances is in line with his previous two campaigns.
Yet there is now the possibility that this Thursday's second leg against the Whitecaps could be Dempsey's last in Rave Green, which hardly seems possible. It seems like yesterday that Dempsey stunned the U.S. soccer community by leaving the bright lights of the Premier League and signing that long-term contract with the Sounders. All the more reason for Dempsey to go out with a flourish.
David Beckham got his championship sendoff. So did Donovan. It's now up to Dempsey and his Sounders teammates to create their own iconic moment.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.