Clint Dempsey has never seemed much like the sentimental type — long goodbyes just wouldn't be his style. So if he were going to wrap up his incredible career, do you think he would let us know? Or would he just keep doing his thing until the final whistle of his final match, quietly riding off into the sunset like the Texan hero he is?
It is a question worth asking now. Dempsey might give us his final match Thursday if the Vancouver Whitecaps manage to eliminate his Seattle Sounders in their Western Conference semifinal second leg. That may sound far-fetched, but it's not. The 34-year-old goal-scoring sensation can still play at a high level and take over a game, but he has nothing left to prove. He has scored a mountain of goals and made millions of dollars over the course of a storied career that has brought him to MLS and the Premier League. He won over American fans for the past 13 years with his fearless style and unmatched swagger.
Dempsey is also coming off the discovery of a heart ailment a year ago that required two surgeries to correct and cost him half a year of playing time. It was an experience that had to put some things into perspective for a family man with four young children. The fact he battled back from that was a testament to his love for the game that has made him a star, but back then there was still one more World Cup to chase for a man who had enjoyed the ultimate playing experience on three previous occasions. He wanted that fourth World Cup appearance, there was no denying it, but when that dream faded on a nightmare night in Couva, Trinidad & Tobago, it just might have sped up the countdown clock on Dempsey's career.
Without that World Cup, there is much less for Dempsey to chase, and much more reason for us to wonder whether he will continue playing in 2018. That question will ring louder if Dempsey can accomplish the one goal left for him.
The goal is an MLS Cup title. It is a trophy that has eluded Dempsey, from his days with the New England Revolution a decade ago to last year, when his heart conditioned forced him to be a spectator on Seattle's ride to the 2016 MLS Cup. Sure, he was there on that cold night in Toronto. He drank the champagne, hugged his teammates, but he clearly tried to keep it much more low key than his teammates, at least publicly, likely because he wasn't able to play in that final.
It couldn't have been easy for him, especially on an MLS Cup night that produced no goals. He must have looked on in agony, believing full well he could have found a goal. Now that the Sounders are back on the hunt for another title, Dempsey has to be as eager as anybody in Seattle to get them back to the championship game.
And then what? If Dempsey does succeed in helping lead the Sounders to another MLS Cup, he could check off the one thing that has eluded him throughout his club career, the feeling of being on the field for a title. It would be the perfect way to go out, and nobody could really blame him for walking away right then and there.
A Sounders playoff loss could still leave Dempsey searching for that championship glory enough to keep pushing on into 2018, but that will also mean working out a new deal with Seattle. Will Dempsey be willing to take the inevitable pay cut that comes with being a player his age coming to the end of a long and lucrative contract? Will the Sounders push hard to keep him or will they look to replace him with a new, younger star? Would Dempsey be up for testing the free agent market and moving his family one more time? Or is it time to hang up the boots?
U,S. national team fans will ask: "But what about the USMNT career goals record?" The one he currently shares with Landon Donovan. He seemed like a lock to break that record back in July, when he needed just one more goal with four more World Cup qualifiers to play. That 58th goal for the U.S. team never came, though, and now it probably doesn't feel all that fitting to go and break that record in some meaningless match. And the bad news is meaningless matches are all there will be for the U.S. until 2019.
Truth be told it would be fitting in a lot of ways if Dempsey finishes up tied with Donovan. Their careers were intertwined for so long, national team co-stars who spent a decade as teammates, playing in two World Cups together and co-authoring some of the best moments in American soccer history. Having them paired up at the top of the U.S. goal-scoring charts would be a fitting monument to their era, at least until Christian Pulisic inevitably comes along to take the record for himself.
Perhaps Dempsey can learn something from Donovan's own experience with retirement, which saw him step away after winning an MLS Cup, then coming out of retirement after he missed the game. That whole scenario may have spoiled the perfect ending Donovan had written for his career, but it may give Dempsey some valuable insight. He won't want to be that player that comes back after hanging it up.
Whether he calls it a career after this year's playoffs or a year from now, what we can be safe in assuming is that we are seeing the twilight of Dempsey's career. We should all make sure to appreciate what could be the final playing days of one of the best American soccer players to ever play the game — a player who has made a career of stepping up in big moments, and one who just might write the championship-winning ending his career deserves.