You’ve probably heard the Bruce Arena quote hundreds of times now: “Clint Dempsey tries shit.” People repeat it every time Dempsey does something cool, like that Juventus goal.
Arena’s saying has endured over a decade for two reasons. One, it’s a perfect description of what Dempsey is about as a footballer. And two, American national teams have historically been painfully light on shit-tryers. Dempsey — who announced his retirement on Wednesday — was one of a kind.
You know what really sucks? How much the American soccer system is doing to make sure he stays one of a kind.
“What made him so special was his unpredictability,” said former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati about Dempsey. Ironically, Gulati presided over an era of U.S. Soccer policy that shifted emphasis away from relatively inexpensive and accessible programs like ODP that developed Dempsey, and towards more expensive, inaccessible programs that have created a lot of technically sound and tactically aware players who lack creativity. The Development Academy is doing a lot of great things for American soccer, but it’s certainly not helping the kids who are doing tricks in poor neighborhood pickup games find a path to professional soccer.
You’ve probably heard Dempsey’s backstory before, but in case you haven’t, here’s a quick refresher. He grew up with a working class family in Nacogdoches, Texas. He credits unorganized ball in a trailer park and Latino adult league games with helping him develop his skills. He had to quit his club team as a kid because his parents couldn’t afford to finance and his sister’s budding tennis career at the same time, but other parents helped pay his expenses so he could keep playing for the team. He didn’t sign with pro team or a college program with a history of developing top pros, but for small, up-and-coming Furman University, who didn’t even hand him a full scholarship for his freshman year. He became an All-American and first round MLS draft pick anyway.
Dempsey was making funny home movies at Furman at an age where a lot of kids have already been evaluated and discarded by pro teams. The kid in that video went on to score in three World Cups, become the USMNT’s joint-leading scorer, go to the Europa League final, and score 57 Premier League goals. Imagine if he was declared not good enough before he even got started.
College soccer is often demonized, and understandably so. It’s far from the best environment for talented 18-to-22-year-old players to develop their skills and prepare to be top professionals. But in a country with 325 million people and very little infrastructure for identifying talent outside of a handful of soccer hotbeds, we really need a safety net to catch the players who never got a shot anywhere else. Finding Clint Dempsey at 20 years old beats the hell out of never finding him at all. And college soccer gave Dempsey the chance to become Dempsey.
His story inspired a lot of players like him, who came from poor backgrounds and didn’t get spotted by youth national team scouts early. His former Seattle Sounders teammate Steve Zakuani summed it up well:
You did it your way. You inspired the youngsters who are overlooked. And you showed that it’s possible to play at the highest level no matter where you started from. Thanks for the memories, blessings to you and the your family. #ClintDempsey— Steve Zakuani (@Zakuani11) August 29, 2018
That Dempsey came from where he did to become arguably the greatest American male player ever is a testament to his incredible talent and desire to succeed, but it’s still nothing short of a miracle, given the obstacles that stand in front of players like him.
Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova, presented research in 2017 that showed just how skewed towards the rich American youth soccer is.
About 25 percent of American families have incomes over $100,000 annually, yet they produce 35 percent of youth soccer players. Conversely, the 25 percent of families with incomes below $25,000 account for only 13 percent of youth soccer players. Forty percent of youth soccer players will leave the sport between ages 13 and 18.
The greater American youth soccer infrastructure — both inside and outside U.S. Soccer itself — is an old boys’ club that is sorely lacking in minority voices. The American soccer development system is increasingly focused on the small handful of elite, expensive Development Academy clubs that are heavily concentrated in a small number of big cities and disproportionately serve rich people on the coasts.
High level club soccer also has a massive rate of attrition at Under-13 level, with players often leaving because it just isn’t fun. “The professionalization of the youth game is not itself the problem — it’s that it is being done at younger and younger ages where the focus should not be on winning but enjoying a game,” said former USMNT player Kyle Martino during his campaign for U.S. Soccer president. “Having a meritocracy based on results at these younger levels creates pressurized environments that suck the fun out of the game.”
One of his fellow candidates, Steve Gans, agreed. “If youth soccer is fractious and dysfunctional, it will necessarily hurt the performance of the national teams, because in our current state we are creating many joyless players,” Gans said.
No one could ever describe Clint Dempsey as a joyless player.
“I will say he was the only player that I can remember that would not only try things goofing around in practice, but he’d have the confidence to do them in games and not be scared to lose possession,” Dempsey’s former college teammate Anthony Esquivel told the Charlotte Observer in 2014. “He was trying these tricks we would try when coach wasn’t looking, except he was doing them in games.”
In 2016, Dempsey told Copa90’s Aaron West about what he wants to do in soccer post-retirement. Unsurprisingly, he said he wants to help kids learn how to “be creative, express themselves, and to enjoy the game.” And he wants to do that outside of a club structure.
In 2016, Clint Dempsey told me after he retires he's gonna chill, fish, *maybe* freestyle a little bit. After that though? Youth development. pic.twitter.com/f4Cb2Ccw0J— A West (@ayyy_west) August 29, 2018
It’s wild that people with power in American soccer love and value Clint Dempsey so much, but ignore the people, places and structures that could help identify and develop more Clint Dempseys.
There are good players coming out of the Development Academies. Really good players. Many of them are the smartest and most technically sound players that American soccer has ever produced. And yet, the USMNT remains devoid of shit-tryers.
The biggest factors in Dempsey’s success were his natural ability and work ethic, but there were a lot of times he had to get lucky too. I reject the idea that Dempsey is one in 325 million. How many Clint Dempseys failed to clear one of the barriers he did through little or no fault of their own? How many amazing flair players are out of the game or playing junior college ball because they didn’t find people with the generosity and financial means that the parents of Dempsey’s club teammates had?
If we learn one thing from Dempsey’s career, it should be that there are no soccer wastelands, that here is no right type of player, and that age 20 is not too late for anyone.
Dempsey overcame so much to accomplish what he did, and he pulled it off because he’s an incredible soccer player and person. But don’t we want to remove some of the barriers that were in front of Dempsey so way more working class kids from DA wastelands can get into the pro system? Dempsey’s career should teach us that we need to abandon our preconceptions of where an American soccer star might come from and what their career path might look like. We need to be willing to look anywhere and everywhere for talent.
Over the last 24 hours, a lot of people have said there will never be another player like Clint Dempsey. With the direction American soccer is going in, I fear they’re right.