Much is likely to be made in the coming weeks about the legacies of Dempsey and Donovan, the dominant figures in the national team’s modern history. Their many differences surely will be rehashed and debated.
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Dempsey, before his late-career move to Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, made a name for himself in England with Fulham and Tottenham of the Premier League. Donovan, who last winter retired for the second time, preferred the comforts of home for much of his career. He won six league titles in M.L.S., where the most valuable player trophy was named for him even before his playing days had ended, after a handful of brief and comparatively underwhelming stints in Europe.
Given their disparate career paths, Dempsey and Donovan long have served as convenient stand-ins for a broader debate within an American soccer culture still self-conscious about its place in the global hierarchy. That Dempsey may soon pass Donovan in career goals will be yet another talking point in that discussion, though Dempsey, for one, seems to want no part of hearing it.
“There’s no extra significance on beating a certain player,” he said. “It’s kind of like golf. You’re just out there playing, and whatever ends up happening ends up happening.”
The potential milestone does, however, touch on much of what has driven Dempsey from the outset of his career. Compared to many of his successful American contemporaries — Donovan, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley — Dempsey was an outsider, and for years he has weaponized that sense of exclusion into a smoldering competitive drive.
“He still thinks about the doubters who doubted him from the first time he ever touched a soccer ball,” said Herculez Gomez, his former United States and Sounders teammate. “That’s where Clint and I relate. We both grew up having to fight for everything, sometimes literally.”
By contrast, many of Dempsey’s contemporaries, including Donovan but also players like Bradley, Beasley and Jozy Altidore, were tabbed for stardom from their teens. Grouped with other top prospects in youth residency programs run by U.S. Soccer, and then groomed and introduced to American fans through their performances with youth national teams, they followed a familiar path to the senior team. Donovan, for one, came of age as the standout at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup. He made his senior national team debut one year later — before Dempsey had played his first college game.
Dempsey, in fact, did not earn his first national team cap until 2004. He had taken a harder, more roundabout route to the team, one forged through long car rides from his home in Nagodoches, Tex., to bigger cities and far-flung fields, where he fought for the chance to play, and then fought again for respect.
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“I’ve always been very motivated, ever since I was a kid,” Dempsey said last week, “because I knew the sacrifices that my parents were making. When I was in fifth grade, they were driving three hours one way and three hours the other way. Not performing well, and not giving my best, would be a slap in their face. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could, because they were doing everything they could for me.”
Dempsey dreamed not of goal-scoring records but of one thing: representing his country in a World Cup, any World Cup. He has now scored in three of them. And against odds that seemed frightfully long last September, when an irregular heartbeat ended his M.L.S. season early, he could be on his way to a fourth.
Now, only months after his age and his health had many wondering whether his career was over, Dempsey’s presence seems more vital than ever. He announced in February that he had been cleared to train again, and not only has he returned to the Sounders, but he also has proved his continued value to the national team as it tries to navigate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Dempsey recorded a hat trick in his return from the heart scare, against Honduras in March, and then scored again a few days later in a 1-1 tie at Panama. That goal was his 56th for his country, meaning the next one will tie Donovan’s career mark.
Like Donovan, Dempsey can see the end of his career approaching in ways that he couldn’t when he was younger. He also knows he is not there yet.
“Being in a position toward the end, being able to take care of my family in a good way, maybe playing in four World Cups, there are things that I’m at peace with,” Dempsey said. “Maybe I didn’t have that peace when I was younger, because I hadn’t accomplished those things.
“I have records to try to break. Mostly, it’s something to talk about when you’re done playing. But right now, I’m playing, and it’s more important to qualify for the World Cup and hopefully play in four World Cups.”