After being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in late August and undergoing two procedures to correct last fall, there were points during the last six months where Clint Dempsey thought he might never play soccer again.
But cleared to resume game action last month, the 32-year-old announced his return to the U.S. Men’s National Team on Friday night, recording his second career hat trick to put an exclamation point on a crucial 6-0 World Cup Qualifying victory against Honduras.
“You don’t know how things are going to work, if you’re going to come back for Seattle or if you’re going to do well enough to get called back for the U.S.,” Dempsey told reporters following the match. “There’s moments where you’re sitting at home and you’re praying that things will work out. I’m just blessed that I can keep going. It’s what I love to do and we’ll see what’s left.”
Given Friday’s performance, there appears to be a lot left for Dempsey, who wasn’t even slated to be part of the MNT roster a month ago as head coach Bruce Arena originally took a cautious approach with his return to the field.
Needing three points from Friday’s match and seeing Dempsey’s early-season form with Seattle Sounders FC, Arena had a change of heart and elected to bring the veteran forward to camp with the idea that he would play a reduced role. When Bobby Wood and Sounders FC teammate Jordan Morris picked up injuries playing with their clubs last weekend, that plan also changed.
Dempsey told reporters he knew he was starting on Wednesday and when Arena asked how long he would be able to go against Honduras, he replied, “I’ll give you all the minutes I can.”
In the end, he went the full 90 and pushed past Jozy Altidore to re-gain the title as the USA’s goal scoring leader in World Cup Qualifying with 17. His 53rd, 54th and 55th international strikes also pulled him within two goals of Landon Donovan’s MNT scoring record, something he says he’s contemplated breaking.
“Yeah, it’s in your mind -- If it comes it comes, if it don’t, it don’t. I’m going to keep pushing, I’m going to keep trying to be in games and try to help the team. If you’re doing the right things you should get looks and hopefully opportunities in front of goal and be able to break it. The most important thing is to qualify for the World Cup. That’s bigger than me trying to break the record.”
According to midfielder Michael Bradley, Dempsey’s presence provided a big confidence boost for the group going into such a big match.
“Clint’s record is second to none,” said the MNT captain. “He’s been here before on all the toughest days and when you look around the locker room before the game on a night like this and you see him, you know what you’re getting. You’re going to get a guy who’s going to give everything he has for the group and his quality around the goal, nobody can ever argue. “
After getting through a health scare that threatened his career, Dempsey is most proud to simply be helping the team as it rebounds from a tough start to the Final Round of World Cup Qualifying. Friday night’s win was the first step in the turnaround, while Tuesday’s match at Panama provides another opportunity. Should the MNT make its way to Russia, the only U.S. player to score in three different World Cups will have his eye on doing it in a fourth.
“Any time you play in a World Cup it’s a dream come true. It’s one thing to say it and another thing to do it. You’ve got to stay relevant, you’ve got to stay producing and you can’t just say it and that’s going to happen. I have to be on the field and do it. I’m just taking each game as it comes and hopefully I can play a part in helping the team. That’d be great if I can be around for that.”