Just a few months ago Clint Dempsey’s career was in question. He watched from the sidelines as his Seattle Sounders teammates lifted the club’s first ever MLS Cup having missed the second half of the 2016 season with a heart problem.
At that point his health was of the utmost importance but it was doubtful as to whether the 34-year-old would ever be the same player again.
But against Honduras for the US national team last week the Dempsey that took to the field for the crucial World Cup qualifier was the same old Dempsey.
The same Dempsey who has become the embodiment of American soccer’s fighting spirit. The same Dempsey who can drag an entire team behind him almost single-handedly. The same Dempsey who now might be considered the greatest US soccer player of all time.
Dempsey v Donovan
Of course, there was already a strong case to be made that Dempsey, rather than Landon Donovan or anyone else, is the greatest American player in history.But his emphatic return over the past few weeks has only served to underline that.
Many are starting to realise that Dempsey might be the best there has ever been Stateside.
Donovan is the primary challenger to such an unofficial title (although some might also mention Tim Howard), with the 35-year-old retiring for the second time having mounted a comeback of his own last season.
But while Donovan is undoubtedly a giant of the American game and perhaps the country’s first soccer icon in the modern age, the question of whether he could have truly thrived in Europe will always be asked of him.
He enjoyed reasonably successful spells with Bayer Leverkusen and Everton, in addition to joining Bayern Munich on loan for six games in 2009, but at no point did Donovan impose himself on the European game like Dempsey did.
Indeed, Dempsey was a star of the Premier League for a number of years, particularly in the 2011/12 season when he scored 23 goals in 45 appearances for Fulham.
That led to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur fighting it out for the American’s signature at the end of the campaign. Spurs won that fight, paying £6 million to make him a key member of their first team.
Even when Dempsey ultimately fell out of the first team fold at White Hart Lane, he blazed a trail with his move to the Seattle Sounders.
It was previously unheard of that such a high caliber talent would make the switch to MLS with their best years ahead of them. Dempsey changed that.
Now, however, he might be entering a period of his career that just highlights his legacy.
Dempsey wasn’t even meant to be named to the USA squad for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Honduras last Friday, but forced Bruce Arena’s hand with his opening three performances for Seattle this season. He started and delivered a hat-trick in a 6-0 win.
Man for the big occasion
When it matters most, Dempsey excels for both club and country. He has scored in each of the three World Cups he has played in, with his triple stake against Honduras making him the all-time leading American scorer in qualifiers.
His goals per game ratio for the national team also stands at 0.42, compared to Donovan’s 0.36.
“There is always the possibility that you are not going to be able to come back and be at that high level and you have to try to work hard to make sure everything is right,” Dempsey said after his hat-trick performance.
“It was a tough process going through that and not really knowing. You are just grateful for every day and every game you play in because you never know when it is going to be taken from you. You’re having a brain battle.”
At 34, Dempsey’s best years may well be behind him. His Premier League days certainly are and should he make it to the World Cup next year it will be his last.
But whatever he achieves from this point on will accentuate his quality and longevity over the past decade or so as the vanguard of his American generation.
Dempsey’s reign as the greatest ever American soccer player might be a short lived one, though.
Eighteen-year-old Christian Pulisic also scored in the Friday night thrashing of Honduras just two weeks after scoring for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
It’s expected he will become the USA’s first true superstar of the sport but for at least a little while longer, Dempsey sits atop the pile.