PANAMA CITY (AP) — Clint Dempsey’s big, owlish eyes brightened and he smiled widely. Seven months after he was sidelined by an irregular heartbeat, he not only returned to the U.S. national team at age 34 but helped the Americans to a critical victory in World Cup qualifying with just the second hat trick of his international career.
“There’s moments where you’re sitting at home and you’re praying and hoping things will work out,” he said brightly in his Texan twang. “So I’m just blessed that I can keep going. It’s what I love to do, and hopefully there’s some more time left.”
His career came to a sudden stop last Aug. 26 when Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders announced their star forward was being evaluated for an irregular heartbeat. After two unspecified procedures, Dempsey returned for Seattle’s opener on March 4, keyed Friday night’s 6-0 rout of Honduras and hopes to play a big role in Tuesday night’s qualifier against Panama.
“On big days, he’s a guy that you want next to you,” U.S captain Michael Bradley said Sunday. “He’s a guy who’s going to always continue to give everything he has until somebody says he can’t anymore.”
Wearing a bright red jersey, shorts and socks, a predominantly orange boot on his right foot and a lime one on his left, the bearded Dempsey scored Friday when he held off a defender and with astonishing precision controlled a chip from 18-year-old Christian Pulisic. Dempsey got his second goal when he rounded the goalkeeper following Pulisic’s pass, then converted a free kick for his 55th international goal, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.
“You know me, I’m a fighter, so I looked for the opportunity to try to get out there and show that I should be around still,” Dempsey said.
He has a chance to join Pele, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose as the only players to score in four World Cups.
“You’ve got to stay relevant,” Dempsey explained. “And you can’t just say it, and that’s going to happen. I have to be on the field and do it.”
Dempsey scored against Ghana at the 2006 and 2014 World Cups — the latter just 30 seconds into the match — and versus England at the 2010 tournament. Also a big-game player at the club level, his chip from the edge of the penalty area lifted Fulham over Juventus and into the 2010 Europa League quarterfinals.
A wide midfielder with pace during the first half of his career, he’s played as a central striker in recent years or sometimes as a withdrawn forward on the national team behind Jozy Altidore. Twenty-four of Dempsey’s international goals have been scored since he turned 30 — just six of those in friendlies.
“He’s a beast,” American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said.
Dempsey’s fire has gotten him into trouble. He was dropped by U.S. coach Bruce Arena from the roster for a March 2006 exhibition at Germany following a fight during club training with New England Revolution captain Joe Franchino. Appointed American captain by coach Jurgen Klinsmann in 2013, Dempsey was stripped of the armband two years later after ripping up a referee’s notebook during a U.S. Open Cup match.
Bradley puts Dempsey among the guys “who are willing to spill everything they have into something, come in every day ready to push and do everything they can to make the group better, guys who when the lights come on, aren’t afraid, who compete, who go for it.”
There remains some mystery about Dempsey’s illness. He has not spoken in detail, but Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey said in mid-September that Dempsey had undergone a procedure and was cleared to resume training. About a month later, Lagerwey announced Dempsey was out for the rest of the season, and Ryan Dempsey tweeted his brother was undergoing a second procedure — and asked for prayers.
After resuming training with the Sounders, Dempsey said last month his symptoms first became apparent in February 2016 and worsened after the Copa America in June. He said he is not experiencing those issues any longer.
“There’s always the possibility that you’re not going to be able to come back and be at that high level,” Dempsey said. “You have try to work hard to make sure everything is right. It was a tough process going through that and not really knowing. But I thought the doctors did a great job.”
Dempsey went the distance in Seattle’s first three matches and returned to the national team after a nine-month absence.
“Watching Clint from game 1 to game 2 to game 3 in Seattle, it was impressive the way he kept improving, and checking with his fitness coaches there, we knew he could play,” said Arena, who replaced Klinsmann in November after the Americans opened the final round of qualifying with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica.
Arena initially envisioned Dempsey as a substitute, but then Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris got hurt.
“We didn’t have anyone else. It made it easy for me,” the coach said.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard noticed a subtle change in Dempsey during training camp last week, and not just a lengthy stretching routine.
“Clint’s always been very steady, didn’t speak a lot. He keeps to himself,” Howard said. “I think his situation with heart probably leads to a lot of reflection about life in general and not just football. I have no doubt it’s more important now.”
Dempsey freely admits that.
“You’re just grateful for every day, grateful every game that you get to play in,” he said, “because you never know what’s going to be taken from you.”