Dempsey's actions in Seattle’s Open Cup loss to Portland got him suspended for the team’s past two games (both losses), will keep him out for the rematch against the Timbers on Sunday and — thanks to the timing of the upcoming Gold Cup — leave the Sounders without their most expensive player for more than...
It could be that the impulse that inspires a back-post chip from the edge of an opponent’s penalty box comes from the same part of a player’s psyche that brings him to berate and humiliate a referee.
Clint Dempsey, as former U.S. national-team coach Bruce Arena once famously put it, “tries s—.”
That phrase, uttered many times since and almost always with a bemused shake of the head, neatly encapsulates the career of American soccer’s favorite outlaw.
The Sounders forward plays professional soccer the way that you play the video game “FIFA 15,” with flicks and backheels, firing away from distance when he senses a goalkeeper drifting. He stares down opponents and referees — sometimes even teammates — alike. Dempsey toes the line between impulsive and reckless, on and off the ball.
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He “tries s—” that wins some games and sometimes leaves coaches thumbing through the depth chart searching in vain for replacements.
Dempsey already has notched seven goals and six assists for the Sounders this season. But his actions in Seattle’s Open Cup loss to Portland got him suspended for the team’s past two games (both losses), will keep him out for the rematch against the Timbers on Sunday and — thanks to the timing of the upcoming Gold Cup — leave the Sounders without their most expensive player for more than a month.
“When you look at his long-term history, this isn’t evident of his long-term history,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said Friday, “this” being Dempsey’s extra-time outburst June 16 at Starfire Stadium, when he grabbed then ripped up referee Daniel Radford’s notebook.
And a superficial glance at Dempsey’s career stats appears to back Schmid’s claim: Through more than 400 games for club and 50 more for country, the 32-year-old forward had never been red-carded.
That stat doesn’t, however, tell the full story. There was the time Dempsey was suspended two weeks for “conduct detrimental to the team” and dropped from the national team after getting in a fight with then-Revolution teammate Joe Franchino in 2006. Dempsey also reportedly punched out a glass window after being left out of the Fulham starting lineup before the 2010 Europa League semifinals.
Last season with Seattle, the forward was suspended two matches after hitting Toronto’s Mark Bloom in the crotch away from the ball in a late-March match — though Dempsey swore the blow wasn’t intentional. Later in the year, Dempsey and rookie defender Damion Lowe had to be separated by teammates during a particularly heated practice session.
Which brings us to June 16, when Dempsey was shown his first red card for an act both slightly tongue-in-cheek — many people likely have daydreamed about a similar show of petulance against an authority figure — and shortsighted. It could have triggered an automatic six-match ban if MLS had chosen to more strictly follow the letter of the Policy Against Referee Assault law.
“Discipline is hard,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters in New York on Thursday in his first comments on the incident. “You never can win. The league is always in a lose-lose, because you have a multitude of constituencies. All we can do is interpret the rule. The rule very specifically said that assault required physical violence. We did not determine what Clint had done as physically violent. It was really bad. He shouldn’t have done it. He apologized, the club apologized.”
The punishment, almost every party but the Professional Soccer Referees Association seems to agree, just about fits the crime. The three-match ban from MLS made a point but returned Dempsey to eligibility in time for the Gold Cup. The six-match — or at-least-two-year — suspension from the Open Cup was harsher, but he’s unlikely to lose any sleep over missing out on a secondary competition.
Whether this is conduct befitting a national-team captain is another conversation, but for now U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is sticking by his man.
“It’s something that nobody wants to go through,” Klinsmann told reporters this week. “Nobody wants to get red-carded. Nobody wants to get suspended and be in discussion by the fans and the media for a mistake you make. But on the other hand, it’s part of the game, too. So we’ll take a little bit of a step back and we’ll discuss it in person in a relaxed way and go from there. “
Dempsey has yet to publicly address either the incident or the punishment, though he did finally break the silence with a tweet Thursday.
“I would like to apologize for my actions in the Open Cup,” it read, both succinct and perfectly Dempsey, and the club says that will be his final word on the topic.
Dempsey has that devil-may-care attitude fans rally behind, so long as he’s not playing against your team. He’s got an obstinacy that outsiders admire, so long as it isn’t you that’s left to fill out the lineup in the meantime.