Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal scored in the second leg of the MLS Western Conference final sereis. (Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
TORONTO — This time a year ago, Clint Dempsey was going through a whole gamut of emotions.
He was a member of Seattle Sounders FC, but not an active player on the team’s MLS Cup final run due to his heart problems.
He was a spectator in the championship game, a role he never has relished or warmed up to throughout his illustrious career, especially for someone who has been a difference maker.
“It’s tough not being on the field being able to battle with the guys,” he said of Seattle’s confrontation with Toronto FC at BMO Field.
So, he sat the bench, watching the drama play out at BMO Field.
“As the game went on, you were starting to get more nervous to see what was going to happen,” he said. “Stef [Frei, goalkeeper]. The team battled real hard. Then it goes into the penalty shootout. They were able to see the game out in penalties.”
Which was culminated by defender Roman Torres converting the game-winning PK.
Then pandemonium broke out for the visiting side.
“Yeah, happy,” said Dempsey, who ran onto the field. “Happy to bring the cup to the city, to Seattle, a great city that has a lot of support for the game.”
Fast forward to 2017.
Clint Dempsey was sitting again Thursday afternoon, this time on the dais at The Hanger at the Kia Training Center. This time the U.S. international striker was talking about how he was looking forward to this year’s final, which will pit the same two adversaries for the second consecutive year Saturday.
“Happy to be back and playing again and have an opportunity to battle in the game,” he said. “Look forward to it.”
Another MLS Cup title would crown a remarkable year for Dempsey, who was named Major League Soccer comeback player of the year for scoring 12 goals and who embraced a new role with the national side as a super sub. He came on in the second half to spark the U.S to a 2-1 victory over Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in July. He tried to do the same for the Americans in their World Cup qualifying finale in Trinidad & Tobago, but fell short as the visitors recorded a devastating 2-1 defeat to the last-place side in the CONCACAF Hexagonal.
Dempsey admitted he has never been one to take anything for granted, but said that his diagnosis of a irregular heart beat last year “changes … the aspect not knowing if you would be able to come back, possibly.”
He underwent two procedures. Then slowly, but surely Dempsey was restored to his former competitive self during preseason.
“As preseason went on, [he was] starting to feel better and starting to get more games under my belt, starting feeling more confident, starting to making more of an impact, starting to enjoy it more, because we were able to compete at a high level and make an impact,” he said. “Play the game you love a little bit longer.
“Yeah, in that aspect you do appreciate it a little bit more. but I’ve kind of been someone who has always been really not taken much for granted. I’ve always been racing against time, feeling like I started a little bit later than some of my peers. But happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish. There’s more work to be done.”
That includes even helping out someone who will be trying to stop Dempsey from scoring Saturday — Toronto FC defender Drew Moor, who reached out to the Seattle forward after he was diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia in April.
They talked on the phone as Moor asked Dempsey what he was dealing with, what was his recovery process and what doctors he chose, Deuce said.
“I had a good conversation about that, told him what my experience was and let him make his own decision on moving forward,” Dempsey said. “It was good to see him back on the field. It’s always scary to have any type of heart issue. Was glad able to talk about it and make his decision a little bit easier.”
Sounders FC head coach Brian Schmetzer reminded the media that Dempsey did contribute to the Sounders playoff run before he was sidelined in August 2016.
“You guys got to remember last year when I took over,” he said. “Clint was a big part of what sparked us on a run. We drew against LA and we had three wins in a row, so he’s certainly part of the team. He didn’t play in the final game, but he helped the team with that that initial [burst] of momentum.
“What does he bring to the team? It’s what we’ve all seen over the course of his career. He’s tenacious inside the box. He scores goals. He’s a good passer. He leads by example.”
If you want to get technical, the 34-year-old Dempsey might have been an MLS Cup champion last year, but has never playing for a winning side in a title match.
As a member of the New England Revolution, he participated in MLS Cup twice — in 2005 and 2006 — but wound up on the losing side against the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, respectively.
So, this year Dempsey has an opportunity to win it when he is on the field.
“We’ve just got to keep playing our game, keep moving the ball well,” he said. “When you do that, you’re tough to close down. If we have good possession in the attacking third, then I think we’ll have good chances. Yeah, I look forward to the challenge.”