Long Reads

Clint Dempsey: the Greatest American Soccer Player Ever?

When you discuss the greatest American sportsman of all time, some obvious names come to mind. It could be Tiger Woods. It could be Michael Phelps. Even Muhammad Ali.

You’d have to go quite far down the list, though, to find the greatest American ever to play soccer. Although, it’s not something which is ever really disputed. The greatest American ever to grace the football field, according to many, is one Clint Dempsey.

A Texas boy, it took a move to England to really write his name into the record books. His time in the English capital will only be remembered with fondness, for Fulham fans, for Tottenham fans as well, but also fans of the game from across the pond in America. It could be argued he inspired many Americans to take up the beautiful game.

There is a connection, however, that links Dempsey and shores relatively closer afield. He’s of an Irish ancestry. But it was in Texas, throughout Ronald Reagan’s reign as president, that Dempsey grew up.

And it was humble surroundings as well. It was in a trailer park that Dempsey lived in for most of his childhood. But what this did provide was an opportunity to play football alongside his brother Ryan (five years his senior) and other children from a largely Hispanic community.

His footballing career started after his brother pestered a family friend to join a local Mexican league. Clint followed, but money was tight; the young footballer was forced to quit so his parents could afford his older sister Jennifer’s tennis career.

But his life changed less than a month before Christmas in 1995. At the age of just 16, Jennifer died of a brain aneurysm. Understandably, it affected Dempsey greatly. But this was the type of event that could either push him forward or end his dreams of a professional career.

It provided a deeper motivation for him to pursue his dream. After a college career at Furman Paladins, Dempsey was selected by New England Revolution in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. It really was the point where his professional career kickstarted.

In his breakthrough season, he started 23 of 24 matches, netting seven goals. It was also throughout the year of 2004 that he made his debut for the US national side as he came on for the final 23 minutes of a fixture against Jamaica.

The following year saw Dempsey play a key role in Revolution’s run to the MLS Cup final. It was only an extra-time LA Galaxy goal that separated Revolution and a first ever piece of silverware. They made it to the final the following year as well. But there was a familiar narrative; despite an injury-stricken season, it was a stage where Dempsey began to attract the attention of European clubs.

In late 2006, Dempsey made the move to West London when Fulham came calling. And the Cottagers were willing to pay big bucks to get their man; the $4 million offered to Revolution for the services of Dempsey was a record for an MLS Player.

After the Home Office officially granted him a work permit in January 2007, Dempsey officially signed for the club from Craven Cottage. With Chris Coleman at the ship, Dempsey made his debut just days after in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham. Despite victory over relegation rivals Sheffield United at the Cottage at the start of February, things began to turn sour quickly in West London.

That win proved to be Coleman’s last in the Fulham dugout. Lawrie Sanchez took over the reins in late April and steered the Cottagers away from relegation – they eventually finished 16th.

The following season for Fulham fans can only be described as one thing: a roller-coaster. As May approached, the Cottagers looked doomed. But a Saturday afternoon in late April changed everything.

It was a day overshadowed by a crucial tie between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge; another side from West London made the trip to Manchester on that day, though. Fulham. A second half comeback against Man City kickstarted a magical great escape – the kind we had only seen in Premier League history from West Brom in 2004/05.

It was clear throughout the summer of 2008 that Roy Hodgson (appointed unexpectedly in December 2007) was building something at Craven Cottage. Seven goals by Dempsey throughout the 2008/09 season propelled Fulham surprisingly into 7th place. That’s their highest ever position in top flight history. The reward: Europa League football.

The 2009/10 season was a campaign of dreams for Cottagers supporters. For Dempsey, it was a tale of overcoming a setback and reaping the rewards. A trip to Ewood Park for Fulham in January 2010 may not stand out for many – for Dempsey it does, however. Because it was here when he suffered a suspected cruciate ligament injury. It would not be until March until he returned.

But just seven days after his return, it was his wonder strike that led Fulham into the latter stages of the Europa League. It was a memorable evening at Craven Cottage as they registered a 4-1 aggregate victory over Juventus.

Roy Hodgson guided Fulham all the way to Hamburg that year; only Atletico Madrid stood in the way of Fulham (yes, Fulham) and European silverware. Dempsey’s efforts as a second half substitute were not enough, though. Diego Forlan’s extra time goal ensured Atletico got their hands on a major European trophy, their first since the 1962 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Later that summer, South Africa beckoned as he represented the US at the 2010 World Cup. And England fans will probably remember his goal on the world stage. In the first group game he scored a crucial equaliser, as Rob Green spilled the ball over the goal line to send the whole of America into raptures.

By 2012, though, it was time for a move away from Craven Cottage. Tottenham declared an interest; what an opportunity to play with the likes of Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe.

It was on deadline day that summer that he completed his move to White Hart Lane. Once again, he made history in terms of his transfer fee; the $9 million that Tottenham paid was the largest fee ever to be paid for an American. His salary made him the richest American footballer in history as well.

He adhered himself to the Spurs faithful less than a month later. A trip to Old Trafford in September 2012 was a memorable moment that will live with Dempsey forever. Confidence was high for Andre Villas Boas’ men going into the game after a run of victories. But this was Manchester United. This was Old Trafford, a ground they had not won at since Gary Lineker’s goal gave them a 1-0 win in 1989.

But as the country watched on at that day’s lunchtime kick-off, Dempsey rewrote history. His first goal in the white of Tottenham Hotspur was the winner against the Red Devils. What a way to announce yourself to the North London faithful.

From then on, there was something about Clint Dempsey during his time at White Hart Lane and playing against Manchester United. Because – as the snow fell on a bitterly cold Sunday in the following January – Dempsey netted against Sir Alex’s men once again.

This might have not been a winner – but it certainly felt like one. His stoppage time equaliser sent the 35,000 crammed inside, and the hundreds of thousands of Americans watching across the pond, into pure delight.

But by the summer of 2013, a new challenge lied ahead. Less than a year before he was set to represent his nation in their second successive World Cup, Dempsey made the move back to the states as he signed for Seattle Sounders.

The advantage of representing a side in the MLS is that you can play across Europe during the winter in their off-season. And if there was one place for him to return in Europe, it would have to be Fulham. On Christmas Eve of 2013, he made the move back to Craven Cottage. He went on to make an extra five league appearances for the Cottagers as he aimed to steer them away from relegation. But what an opportunity it was to go back and relive some of the happiest times of his club career.

His happiest memories in an international shirt came in the summer of 2014. The World Cup in Brazil can only be seen as a turning point in US footballing history. And it was Dempsey who played a key part in that, netting against the Ghanaians within 29 seconds, the fifth fastest in World Cup history. He went on to score in the next fixture against Portugal as well before the US were eventually eliminated at the round of 16 stage following an extra-time defeat to the Belgians.

It was the last furore of a glistening career. He hit the headlines 12 months later when ripping up a referee’s notebook whilst protesting against a sending off of a teammate. It was something that would cost him the captain’s armband for his country. But there’s no doubting it, Dempsey still remained so highly thought of on American shores, and still does to this day; he will go down as the greatest soccer player in American history.

Article by Conor O’Grady

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