US Men's National Team legend Clint "Deuce" Dempsey announced his retirement today, putting an end to a career that strayed far outside the typical soccer narrative in the United States.
For a game that is so often defined by finely manicured suburban lawns, Dempsey's rise to international stardom from a dusty trailer park in Nacogdoches, Texas stood out as one of the rare rags-to-riches stories in American soccer.
The improbable rise was almost over before liftoff, with Dempsey's youth career feeling more like a fluke than the start of something special. The Dempsey family arrived at tryouts for an elite youth team for both Clint and his brother Ryan. They were too late for Ryan, as the team for his age group had already been selected. But not Clint's; he made the cut. His parents later would drive six hours round trip for games in Dallas just so he could play for the team.
But Clint's sports career wasn't always the primary focus for the family. His sister Jennifer was a tennis prodigy, and the Dempsey parents put a considerable amount of their limited resources into her career—to the point that Dempsey had to quit his youth team so she could continue. He was angry, but he loved his sister and accepted it. Then at 16-years-old, Jennifer died of a brain aneurism, a tragic moment that Dempsey would later say helped motivate him to play harder.
Shortly after his "Eight Mile"-like upbringing, a long-haired Dempsey signed with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer in 2004 and was called up for the senior national team the same year. But Dempsey set himself apart from his American counterparts by making it big in Europe.
While many USMNT players are often criticized for their reluctance to leave their comfort zone, Dempsey went toe-to-toe with the best in Europe for seven years, with his 57 goals tallying more than the next three best USMNT players in the Premier League combined. Here was a kid succeeding against the best of the best that world soccer had to offer, and it was some poor kid from Nowhere, America. It was the ultimate American story, sports or otherwise.
That's why many at home and abroad were puzzled by the decision to return to MLS at the peak of his career, but there was something about Dempsey's return that made it feel more like the Seattle Sounders were lucky to have him. That America got its native son back.
Yet for however illustrious his club career was, Dempsey will perhaps be best remembered for his knock-down, drag-em-out, doesn't-give-two-shits style on the international stage. From the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history:
To his absolute sauce against this Turkish player, may he rest in peace:
To his brutal stank face against the Jamaican side:
Dempsey exhibited a style and culture of play that the United States badly needed. Traditional soccer countries boast rosters filled with players who came from rough upbringings and have scrapped their whole lives to get where they are, and Dempsey proved the U.S. had players just like that. He gave the United States team an identity on the international stage that it never had before.
During the 2014 World Cup, we came to know him as a kind of antidote to Landon Donovan, who was conspicuously left off the roster that year. While the PR-friendly Donovan was fraught with indecision about how soccer played a role in his life, the strong and silent Dempsey put his head down, took orders from a wildly unpopular coach, and treated the game like a job to grind out results. (He later got a standing ovation on Letterman before delivering a boring-ass interview.)
Dempsey was the rare kind of player that simultaneously embodied the finesse of European style of play, paired with the direct, gritty honest attacking style that felt purely American—always with a 100 pound chip on his shoulder. In a country with a developing soccer identity, Clint Dempsey somehow embodied all of the best of it.
So what could possibly be on tap for the retirement of one of USMNT's GOATs? Apparently fishing (the first thing his Twitter bio says is that he's an "avid fisherman") and thankfully a bit of youth development:
And hopefully he will continue with his rap career:
(You've got to love the forced-ass line, "grind more ice than a hockey skate," people.)
If there's any hope for a U.S. men's team that embarrassingly missed out on the 2018 World Cup, it's that their promising young players grew up watching Dempsey grind it out. Even if he's missing from the locker room, his legacy still remains. Because we'll certainly be lucky to find ourselves another Nacogdoches badass like Deuce.