U.S. icon Clint Dempsey has battled back from the brink and is not done yet
Contentment and Clint Dempsey normally don't mix, at least in his professional life.
This is a player, after all, who has had to fight for everything. As a kid he endured three-hour car rides from his home in Nacogdoches, Texas, to Dallas just to get to practice. He later fought to establish himself in college and in MLS. Once he made it to the bright lights of the Premier League, he battled with a string of skeptical managers whose first act was to drop him from the lineup, only to reinstate him once they realized that, yes, he did have ability.
To this day, Dempsey, 34, is a fighter still, though normally after games he shows little emotion, no matter the result. Yet when he bagged a hat trick in the United States national team's 6-0 victory over Honduras last month, a bit of appreciation, however faint, seeped out of him.
"You're just grateful for every day, grateful for every game you get to play in 'cause you never know when it's going to be taken from you," he said that night.
Dempsey's gratitude is understandable. For the better part of six months, the Seattle Sounders forward was forced to confront the possibility that his livelihood would indeed be taken away from him. Symptoms from an irregular heartbeat saw Seattle shut him down for the last four months of the 2016 season. In a cruel twist, Dempsey was forced to watch the Sounders' epic march to their first MLS Cup title from a tantalizingly close distance. The day before the MLS Cup final against Toronto FC, while his teammates practiced, Dempsey could be seen training on his own. He was on the inside, yet also apart.
Ahead of Seattle's trip to Los Angeles, where it will face the Galaxy on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), Dempsey has safely put his health concerns to rest, and everyone connected with the Sounders -- and the national team -- is ecstatic over the development.
"It's sobering, man. I know I was scared for Dempsey when he got diagnosed with this," said Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey. "It's great that we're talking about soccer now, but the initial reaction was: Can you live a normal life? Fortunately that was put to rest pretty quickly, and then we were able to work on the soccer part."
Dempsey has played in all six of the Sounders' games this season, scoring twice. He played arguably his best game of the campaign in last weekend's 2-1 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps, but a combination of the crossbar and some stellar goalkeeping from the Whitecaps' David Ousted kept him off the score sheet.
"This last month has been really, really encouraging, where you've seen the return of Clint both with the national team and with us, to be a really top, elite-level forward in our league," said Lagerwey.
Getting there has taken some doing. The Sounders were beyond cautious with his rehab during the final months of 2016, and that continued into the preseason program. Seattle's medical staff opted for an approach whereby Dempsey's minutes were upped in 15-minute increments for preseason matches. After each game the club obsessively checked his condition to make sure there were no setbacks. There was the mental aspect of his comeback as well.
"I think it was after our fourth game, after Dempsey went out there for 75 minutes and he said, 'You know what, this was the first time that I really didn't think about my condition,'" said Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer. "He could put it past him. It took those four preseason games before he felt he could focus just on the soccer. After that, we knew he was back mentally. He still had a ways to go physically."
Brick by brick, Dempsey gradually built up the physical side of his game. By the time the season started, he was ready. Along the way, teammates and coaches alike noticed a deeper appreciation in Dempsey that his career is still intact. The Sounders were in Charleston, South Carolina, for part of the preseason program when the players organized a team outing at a nearby paint ball facility. This is one of those events that a veteran nursing a knock or two might choose to skip. Not Dempsey.
"I pulled up one of the vans and Clint was one of the front guys," said Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. "He was itching to go on this team event and be part of the squad. He had a blast and the whole team had a blast and I think the whole team was excited he was there and part of the team. It's much more than just who is going to be on the pitch on weekends. For us, we need to bond as a team and we need to be one, and those events mean something. For him to be so enthusiastic about being part of the team again and coming to paint-balling, that was a really cool thing to see."
Otherwise it has been the same old Dempsey. Playing mostly in support of lone striker Jordan Morris, he still barks at teammates if he isn't given the ball at the right moment. A foul will see him direct even more ire at an opponent.
"That passion has always been there and still is," said Frei.
As a team, the Sounders' start to the season has been uneven, with Seattle (1-2-3) tied in eighth place in the Western Conference. A road-heavy schedule -- Sunday's tilt against the Galaxy will be Seattle's fifth away match out of seven -- is partially to blame, though Schmetzer pointed to other factors, some of which have impacted Dempsey.
"I don't [want] to say it like it's so negative, but it's tough coming from MLS Cup with a short offseason and higher expectations because you're the champ but with only four weeks of rest," Schmetzer said. "Guys are tired and they haven't been in their normal offseason routine. I think the team in general has had its challenges, and so Clint coming back into that group, I think we're all starting to work through it. I think we've played some pretty OK games and we're hoping that that gets better soon."
Dempsey's comeback is such that it's difficult to pinpoint its most impressive aspect. For Lagerwey it was the volume of work to which the player subjected himself in order to get back into shape. Frei points out the speed of the forward's return. For Schmetzer, Dempsey's mere presence on the field leaves him in awe.
"Dempsey has come back and overcome that massive hurdle to be able to be a top athlete in his sport," the Seattle manager said. "Just the fact that he's back playing again is pretty impressive to me, and not only has he come back to play at a league level, but then also to come back to play in those two qualifiers at a World Cup level. That's incredible."
And the fighter isn't done yet.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.