After playing professional soccer for 15 years, Clint Dempsey—celebrated striker and guy who broke John Terry’s face—is retiring at age 35 from both the Seattle Sounders and the United States national team. The Sounders posted a statement detailing Dempsey’s long and successful career; Deuce, characteristically, kept it short and sweet.
Dempsey will be remembered for his seven years in the Premier League with Tottenham and Fulham, his eight seasons in MLS, and—connecting the two—his somewhat controversial decision to leave Europe’s higher level of soccer to come back to the U.S. and play in the less-rigorous league. Dempsey was 30 when he left for MLS and looked unlikely to factor into Tottenham’s plans in any meaningful way, but his move kicked off a series of USMNT players, still in their prime, returning to North America to play professionally: Michael Bradley left Roma in 2014 for Toronto FC, Jozy Altidore left Sunderland in 2015 for Toronto FC, and the once-promising Jordan Morris turned down a Bundesliga contract to play in MLS in 2016. These decisions, both at the time and in retrospect, were seen as bad for the overall health of the national team. (While it would be foolish to attribute the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup solely to these star players’ return to MLS, it would be equally so to assume the drop in the level of competition had nothing to do with it.)
Dempsey has also lodged his place in the history books. He’s tied with Landon Donovan for most international goals scored (57); ranks third in international caps (141); and holds the record for most goals scored by an American in the Premier League. He was the captain of the USMNT. He was twice named Fulham’s player of the year and, beloved by the club’s fans, was honored with his own profane song. Perhaps most memorably, he curled in this gem during the second leg of a 2010 round-of-16 Europa League match in Fulham’s 4-1 win over Juventus, which, after a 3-1 loss in the first leg, clinched Fulham’s spot in the quarterfinals.
All of the above will be included in any accounting of Dempsey’s career, but what won’t show up in the statistics and the highlights and records is the fact that Dempsey was an absolute asshole who would not let anything slide. In practically every game, no matter the time or place, Dempsey was at some point jawing with an opponent or sniping at a ref. He was also always, always, glowering. A hard foul? Get ready to hear about it. Bad call? He’ll sarcastically applaud the ref. He played with a simmering rage, just waiting for a slight, real or perceived, so he could let it boil over and propel him to his best level; it’s unclear if and how he plays without beefing with someone.
In 2006, when he was playing for the New England Revolution, he broke an opponent’s jaw fighting for the ball and then took off his shirt and yelled about it. He was suspended for two games.
During a Premier League game against Liverpool in 2011, Dempsey took exception with a tackle from Craig Bellamy and let him know. Dempsey received a yellow card for getting in Bellamy’s face, but ultimately had the last laugh when he scored the game-winner.
It didn’t matter who the opponent was, Dempsey was going to play as aggressively as he possibly could. In 2007, he literally broke Chelsea defender John Terry’s face as they were going up for a header. He wasn’t whistled for the play but England’s FA whined about it later.
His hot-headedness extended off the field, too. When Dempsey was told he wouldn’t start in the 2010 Europa League semifinal, he lost it and punched a glass window. A few years after the incident, Dempsey’s then-teammate Danny Murphy recounted his reaction:
“Clint is a passionate boy. He doesn’t hold back and he decided to punch a window which had thickened glass in the corner of the Cottage.
“Basically half his finger was off and you could see his tendon. Glass shattered - it was some punch by the way. Blood was going everywhere. This was all because he wanted to play of course.”
Murphy added: ‘The doctor was there and he bandaged it all up and he came on as a substitute to contributed.
Speaking about his role of captain at the time, the former Liverpool and England midfielder admitted he was in total shock after seeing Dempsey’s reaction.
Murphy said: ‘It was tough initially, there was a lot of shock. Even Roy was in shock. Clint calmed down quite quickly when he realised the severity of the injury.
‘I was just trying to keep him calm and in the end he did calm down. What was great for me was that Roy didn’t punish him and leave him out altogether because it was a real lack of discipline. It was a horrible moment.
Dempsey did end up coming off the bench for that game—with a heavily bandaged hand.
He was equally, uh, passionate in MLS, though—perhaps more comfortable in his home country where was was widely beloved—that habitual simmering rage burned through the surface more frequently. Who can forget when he swatted Mark Bloom in the dick in 2014? Or when he was red-carded for tearing up a ref’s notebook in 2015?
Here he is not bothering to hide his displeasure with Bruce Arena for subbing him off in last summer’s World Cup qualifying game against Trinidad and Tobago. The USMNT won 2-0.
And here he is just a year ago trash-talking Real Salt Lake player (and USMNT teammate) Danilo Acosta after a loss.
Dempsey’s mulishness and incessant chatter never seemed malicious; he just refused to be intimidated by anyone. He was a moody player fueled by anger and an insatiable appetite for beef. Watching him play was as much about waiting for him to argue as it was waiting for him to score, and it was a thrill.