Clint Dempsey has eight goals for the Sounders in rivalry games against the Portland Timbers and agrees he does tend to elevate his play when opponents and stakes are higher
Sounders star forward Clint Dempsey remembers his first big rivalry games from when he was just 9 years old.
Dempsey was a fifth grader playing for the Texas Longhorns youth soccer club in Dallas, part of a three-team Classic League that included the equally powerful Dallas Texans squad. The two sides inevitably battled for the championship every year, so any regular season or tournament games between them took on added importance in the feeling-out process.
“It was never life and death in terms of people trying to kill each other, but it was just that you knew they would be good, competitive games,’’ said Dempsey, who wound up switching to the Texans as a high school freshman and going equally hard after the Longhorns side. “They were the teams you usually faced in the finals of tournaments and those were the teams you needed to beat to get the points to be top of the league. So, they were very important games that kind of gave you a lift during the year.’’
Just like Saturday, when his Sounders square off for the first time this season against the arch-rival Portland Timbers at CenturyLink Field. To say Dempsey gets a “lift’’ from these games would be an understatement: having scored eight goals against the Timbers, three of them game-winners and six coming in the final 30 minutes.
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“It’s an important game for us and our fans, so you want to perform well,’’ Dempsey said. “It’s bragging rights. You look to try to get a good result. Whether it’s you scoring or somebody else. It’s all about trying to win and have those bragging rights.’’
The mark of a top player in any sport is being able to produce at their highest level in the biggest games. And Dempsey sure has a knack for doing that, even at 34 and working back from an irregular heartbeat that ended his 2016 season last August.
Just last month, with rumors he still wasn’t fit enough to even start for the U.S. Men’s National Team, he scored four goals in two games against Honduras and Panama. Dempsey admits he does tend to up his game when opponents and stakes take on higher meaning, especially international matches.
“You try to make the most of every opportunity you get playing for your country,’’ he said. “And there are a lot of quality players there, so they bring up everybody’s game.’’
And playing against a longstanding rival, he added, is much the same. Whether it was as a youth playing in Dallas, as a college star with Furman going up against South Carolina or Clemson, or as an English Premier League trailblazer for Fulham facing rival Chelsea, or for Tottenham squaring off against Arsenal.
“It was very intense,’’ Dempsey said. “Playing in the Premier League is very cutthroat. You try to get top-four when we were playing at Tottenham and you knew you had to get results against your rival to accomplish that. When I was at Fulham, Chelsea was a higher-ranked team at the time I was there and you wanted to let them know that you’re a team that could compete with them.
“They were very good rivalries,’’ he said. “Even though Chelsea maybe didn’t see us as their rivals, but for Fulham it was because of a very close proximity.’’
In 2008-09, Dempsey scored twice for Fulham in a 2-2 draw against Chelsea in the West London derby game. Then, in his final season with Fulham in 2011-12, Dempsey scored the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea.
Though the competition level is lower here, the Timbers-Sounders rivalry at times has taken on fierce proportions. The Sounders are 48-35-12 all-time against Portland dating back to 1975 — and hold an 8-5-4 MLS regular season edge — but the Timbers knocked the Sounders out of the 2013 playoffs in Dempsey’s first season with the squad.
For Dempsey and others, like midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, the taste of that elimination still lingers.
In his first game against the Timbers in the ensuing 2014 season, Dempsey scored a hat-trick. During a celebratory rally in Seattle after the Sounders won the MLS Cup last December, Dempsey — who missed the entire playoffs — shouted into a microphone: “All I got to say is, now that we won one, Portland can’t say [expletive]!”
The uncensored audio made the rounds nationally.
Dempsey has no special advice this weekend for his Sounders teammates — dealing with the loss of forward Will Bruin for several weeks to a dislocated elbow suffered last Saturday – other than to maintain composure in trying to secure their first win against a top-flight club this season.
“You just enjoy it,’’ he said. “It’s what you dream about as a kid. Playing in big games in front of big crowds. I’m sure the stadium will be rocking on Saturday. Just make sure you control your emotions, don’t do anything crazy to get sent off. It’s a chance for us to win the game and try to get some points we need.’’