The Seattle and U.S. national team star has accomplished plenty in his career, but MLS success and further international competitions are continuing to motivate him.PORTLAND — Clint Dempsey may be the highest-paid player in Major League Soccer, but the Texas-born U.S. national team star doesn’t need much to remind him of his modest upbringing, which helped forge him into one of the toughest and best soccer players this country ever produced.
“I think back to when I was riding around in a 1989 Ford Probe with no radio, having to put like 50 cents or a dollar of gas then, and you couldn’t say that was too bad then because at least you had that," Dempsey said in an exclusive interview with Goal USA. “But I remember having my brother trying to pop the clutch so we could get the car started. I remember going over to one of my best friends' house and sleeping on floors. I remember eating Ramen noodles and Spam.
“The George Foreman grill was my best friend (as a rookie with the New England Revolution),” added Dempsey, who was doing promotional work for Oberto All Natural Jerky as part of his All-Star duties. “I was lucky that I got to stay with a host family. It would have been difficult to survive in Massachusetts, especially near Boston, where rent is very expensive. I got to live with a host family for a year. That really helped me get settled, to figure out making sure you could get your credit good enough so you could even rent an apartment. I remember those days like they were yesterday.”
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Those days are long gone for Dempsey, who some 10 years later stands as one of the marquee players taking part in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game, which features 20 World Cup players, including several members of the champion German team. Just over a year ago, Dempsey playing in MLS would have been almost unthinkable. He was in the midst of a strong career in Europe and one year into a lucrative contract with Premier League side Tottenham.
It would have been unthinkable to Dempsey as well, before MLS and the Seattle Sounders came forward with a record-setting offer that forced him to seriously consider a return home.
“It was a gradual change, it was just over time, being over there,” Dempsey said of his shift from considering an MLS return unlikely to signing with the Sounders. “I enjoyed some great moments, and then just at the same time being away from family.
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“My grandpa passed away the day before, the day of the Ghana game in 2010 and just feeling like I wasn’t there a lot. There were periods of time where I would only get to see my grandparents maybe three days a year, two days a year, so that was something that factored into it.
“When I got to go to Tottenham, it was a difficult start, not getting a full preseason with the team. The preseason I had with Fulham, a lot of that I was on my own, but I felt like I was able to turn things around and finish the season strong in terms of being the third-most productive attacking player,” Dempsey added.
“I had another year guaranteed with a year option, so I was looking forward to playing another season there, but MLS made me an offer I couldn’t refuse," the three-time World Cup veteran admitted. "They made me an offer that made me have to consider and think about all the aspects of life and my career. When I sat and thought about it with my wife, and talked about it with my mom and my dad, I don’t have any regrets in the decision I made.”
Things are looking up for Dempsey after a rough start with the Sounders, which saw him battle through injuries and disappointing results in a 2013 season that ended with a whimper. A productive loan stint at Fulham helped him build up some momentum heading into the 2014 MLS season, and ultimately helped prepare him for another strong World Cup showing.
Dempsey admitted he could be in line for another loan to Europe this winter.
“I’m not saying definitely not, and not saying definitely yes,” Dempsey said when asked if winter loan to a European club was a possibility. “The way the contract was structured, I was able to make one loan move during the time that I was here and I’ve already used that up, so it’s one of those situations.”
Dempsey’s national team future was unclear following his third World Cup, but on Monday in Portland he made it clear he still wants to play for the United States – especially in the 2016 Copa America.
“For me, I just hope that I’m part of the plans and I definitely want to push for Copa America for sure because it’s a tournament I’ve never had an opportunity to play in,” Dempsey said. “I’ve always watched those games. Most of the time it's been in South America, but being on American soil, playing in a competition like that would be pretty awesome. Hopefully that’s in the cards for me, but it’s not my decision.
“I have to work hard and make sure I’m playing well to even get called in and I have to see if I’ll even be a part of the plans.”
When asked about whether he would consider the 2016 Olympics, Dempsey made it clear that playing in the Copa America was more of a priority.
“Copa America is something that is bigger to me than the Olympics, just because in the Olympics it’s a situation where you have younger players and the possibility of bringing in a few older players, where Copa America is a chance to play against the best competition in the world between North, Central and South America,” Dempsey said. "So I view the Copa America as more prestigious. No disrespect to the Olympics, it’s just the way that soccer is set up for the Olympics.”
Dempsey also admitted that he would have strongly considered playing in the 2012 Olympics if the U.S. Under-23 team had qualified for the games. That summer saw his ugly departure from Fulham, and eventual move to Tottenham.
“It’s something I would have thought about,” Dempsey said. “It’s something I think that would have helped during that process to keep my mind off things because it was a difficult situation. I would have enjoyed to play in the Olympics at that point in time because of what was going on. Also the possibility to stay you’ve played in the Olympics is something special. That’s something you can tell your grandkids about. But if you’re talking about what’s more prestigious, I’ll say Copa America.”
That tournament is still years away. For now, with his third World Cup behind him, Dempsey is preparing for the second half of the season with the Sounders, and aiming to enjoy more success with Seattle than he did last season.
“You’re going to deal with some ups, and you’re going to deal with some downs, and I feel over time I’ve put in some good performances and I’m happy with how the team has performed this season,” Dempsey said. “Now it’s about managing the second half of the season and making sure I finish the season strong and I don’t get burned out, so it was good that I was able to get a week off after the World Cup.
“I’m happy with the way things have gone so far, but there’s more to do, and that’s trying to push for an MLS Cup with the Sounders.”