The team bus had left Avaya Stadium long before Clint Dempsey emerged from the U.S. locker room following Friday’s World Cup qualifier with Honduras in San Jose, leaving him to search for another ride back to the hotel. And though that was by chance rather than design — Dempsey was delayed after being randomly selected for drug testing — it was also welcome since it gave him an extra few minutes in a uniform he once thought he might never wear again.
Last August, Dempsey was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, a potentially fatal condition that left his career — and his life — in danger. Seven months later the former U.S. captain still won’t talk about the severity of the ailment, or the treatment he received that has allowed him to play again.
But he does admit the experience gave him a new perspective, one he’ll take into Tuesday’s qualifier in hot and humid Panama, where another one-sided win could lift the Americans into second place in the six-team tournament with six games to play.
“You’re just grateful for every day, grateful for every game you get to play in because you never know when it’s going to be taken from you,” Dempsey said.
Yet with his hat track in the win over Honduras, Dempsey proved that, health permitting, he still has a lot to give. And a lot left to accomplish.
The three goals left him two shy of Landon Donovan’s national team record of 57, a number Dempsey could reach in far fewer games.
“I’m sure in the back of his head he’s going for that scoring record,” teammate Alejandro Bedoya said with a smile. “But he won’t admit it.”
The 6-0 victory, meanwhile, got the Americans back on track toward qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, which would be Dempsey’s fourth. Significantly, the U.S. lost the two fall qualifiers Dempsey missed.
“When you look around on big days, he’s a guy that you want next to you,” said Michael Bradley, who succeeded Dempsey as national team captain. “He’s a guy who’s going to continue to give everything he has until somebody says he can’t anymore.”
Somebody said exactly that last summer when the same big heart that has been at the center of Dempsey’s success forced him off the field.
The symptoms that led to the diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat first surfaced in February 2016, Dempsey said. So the Seattle Sounders, the Major League Soccer team he plays for, began monitoring him closely last summer and when a test came back with worrying results, Dempsey was sent for further treatment.
He made a brief return to training in mid-September before being shut down for the rest of the year, sidelining him for the MLS Cup final — which the Sounders won — and the start of World Cup qualifying.
The unwanted vacation also caused Dempsey to wonder whether he would ever be a world-class player again.
“There’s always the possibility that you’re not going to be able to come back and be at that high level,” Dempsey said. “It’s a tough process going through that and not knowing. But the doctors did a great job. My staff in Seattle did a great job monitoring me … to make sure that I’m not doing too much and I’m getting myself back.”
So when he was cleared to play again his winter, at age 34, he came back embracing every practice and every game.
“I think his situation with his heart probably led to a lot of reflection about life in general, not just football,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I have no doubt that it’s more important now.”
That urgency was apparent when Dempsey rejoined the national team last week. Although Dempsey had scored two goals in his first three games with the Sounders this season, U.S. Coach Bruce Arena had questions about his fitness and planned to start Bobby Wood at forward. But when Wood and backup Jordan Morris were both scratched with injuries, Arena turned to Dempsey.
“We didn’t have anyone else,” Arena said.
That was just fine with Dempsey, who, after more than a decade with the national team, suddenly felt he had to prove his worth.
“I’m a fighter so I looked for the opportunity to try to get out there and show that I should be around still,” he said. “He’s like, ‘How many minutes you think you can give me?’ I said I’ll give you all the minutes I can.”
Dempsey’s goal now is to give Arena 15 more months, enough to get the U.S. through the next World Cup.
“It would be awesome. It would be a dream come true,” he said. “[But] you can’t just say it and then it’s going to happen. I’ve got to stay on the field and do it.
“I’m blessed that I can keep going. This is what I love to do. And hopefully there’s more time left.”