There were a couple dozen media members at Starfire Sports on Wednesday, but it was Sounders defender Cristian Roldan who had the most pertinent question.
When a reporter asked what Clint Dempsey meant to the team, Roldan responded “to the team or to the nation?”
It was an appropriate reply, because this really could be two tributes. In addition to being tied with Fredy Montero for the most regular-season goals in Sounders history, Dempsey is also tied with Landon Donovan for the most goals in U.S. soccer history.
He was a star on the local, national and international scene — the man voted by ESPN and Fox Sports as the greatest American soccer player ever. So when he announced his retirement at the age of 35 Wednesday, there was no shortage of testimonials.
“It goes without saying that Clint has been one of the premier players in U.S. soccer for a long time and has done amazing things for U.S. Soccer and the growth of our game,” Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said. “He inspired millions of kids and came to Seattle and did the same in our community and for that I will forever be grateful.”
Dempsey certainly didn’t have to be a Sounder. He was already the most-well compensated American soccer player ever when he was suiting up for Tottenham in the English Premier League. But knowing that he could provide an adrenaline shot to the team and Major League Soccer in general, Hanauer and company targeted him and eventually signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal in 2013.
The Sounders were already an anomaly — a team regularly drawing 40,000 fans to CenturyLink Field. But when Demspey started donning the Rave Green, it solidified the club as an elite MLS franchise.
The signing wasn’t just about showmanship, though. It was about shooting Seattle to the top of the standings, too.
In his first season with the Sounders, Dempsey’s 16 goals helped lead the team to the 2014 Supporters Shield, given to the club with the best regular-season record. He scored three World Cup goals in June of that same year, further elevating his domestic and international fame.
Clint may not have been the U.S. soccer pioneer that Donovan was, but you’d be hard pressed to name another American who played the game better.
“As far as I’m concerned, Clint Dempsey is the greatest player in the history of our country,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said in a statement. “His mark on both our club and the United States men’s national team is indelible — and his hard-earned reputation as a trailblazer for our nation in Europe helped pave the way for generations of future Americans abroad.”
Of course, Dempsey’s career hasn’t been all knee-sliding celebrations. An irregular heartbeat almost ended his career in 2016, when the Sounders won the MLS Cup despite Dempsey not playing. And this year, age and mileage caused severe restrictions on his playing time, as he was limited to one goal.
Some might wonder why he quit now when the Sounders still have nine regular-season games remaining and a potential shot at the title, but Clint wasn’t contributing much to this year’s team. Teammates and coaches not only understood the decision, but seemed to respect it.
Dempsey himself wasn’t at the practice facility Wednesday, but he did release a statement. He said he felt it was the right time to step away from the game, then thanked the teammates, coaches and support staff he’s worked with throughout his career.
“It has always been my dream to make it as a pro,” Dempsey said. “I’m grateful to be on this ride.”
The announcement spawned copious acclaim from throughout the soccer community.
“An absolute legend in our game who helped change the perception of what it means to be an American footballer,” former U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard tweeted.
“Your passion and creativity brought our game to a new level,” added U.S. soccer legend Mia Hamm. “Wishing you and your family the best.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said that what stood out most about Dempsey to him was that, despite all the individual accolades, “he was always a team guy — he treated the coaching staff, medical staff and training staff with the utmost respect. That was something that was in his character.”
Whether it was his hat trick against Portland, his 2010 goal against Juventus in the Europa League, or a verbal exchange at practice, people are going to have different favorite memories of the man known as “Deuce.” The Sounders have never had a player quite like him. The country hasn’t, either.