USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers recaps the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Honduras.
USA TODAY Sports
SAN JOSE, Calif. – A few months ago, Clint Dempsey feared that a heart condition would not only prevent him from returning to United States national team action but also affect his quality of life.
Now? He is well and truly back.
The veteran Seattle Sounders forward signaled his return to the squad on Friday with a hat trick for the U.S. in its 6-0 thumping of Honduras in a crucial World Cup qualifying match, a statement that suggested that now that the 34-year-old is around again, he has no plans on going anywhere.
Dempsey missed the end of the Major League Soccer season after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and admitted he experienced some bleak moments during his layoff.
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“There is always the possibility that you are not going to be able to come back and be at that high level and you have to try to work hard to make sure everything is right,” Dempsey said. “It was a tough process going through that and not really knowing. You are just grateful for every day and every game you play in because you never know when it is going to be taken from you. You’re having a brain battle.”
Head coach Bruce Arena did not envision Dempsey in a starting role when he named his squad, but that change quick after injuries to Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris.
“We didn’t have anyone else,” joked Arena, who asked Dempsey on Wednesday if his fitness level meant he could start the game. Dempsey responded that not only could he do that, but that he felt strong enough to go as long as necessary.
The result was a trio of goals capped off by a sensational angled free kick and, more significantly, an effortless instant rapport between him and youngster Christian Pulisic that can only bode well for the future.
“Man, he is a great player,” Dempsey said of Pulisic, who scored one goal and set up three more. “He can beat people one on one and creates mismatches because of that. It is great to have someone who can win that individual battle and break teams open. He makes people better around him, and the sky is the limit.”
Pulisic is still improving, still remarkably young for one so proficient, still a little shy. But his face lit up when asked to reflect on the experience of playing with Dempsey, who began his MLS career when Pulisic was just 5.
“He is an easy guy to play with,” Pulisic said. “It is really fun playing in behind him and off of him. He is strong and technical and makes good runs, he always gives good support — and he is clinical.”
Friday’s result gave Arena a superb start in the first competitive game of his second spell in charge of the national team, and eased the pressure that had built up after a pair of defeats to begin the final round of CONCACAF regional qualifying under Jurgen Klinsmann.
Tuesday’s visit to Panama now seems less daunting, with the Honduras victory having moved the team up from last place of the six-team table and into fourth. The top three teams will qualify automatically for Russia next summer, while a fourth goes into an intercontinental playoff against a team from the Asia confederation.
Dempsey’s goal spree put his career tally with the U.S. at 55, just two short of Landon Donovan’s career mark. Such was the dominance over Honduras, at one point it seemed feasible the record could be broken during the second half on Friday.
That will have to wait, and Dempsey is neither ignoring nor fixating upon the potential accolade.
“Yeah, it is in your mind, but if it comes it comes,” he said. “I am going to keep pushing. I’m going to keep try to be in games and help the team if you are doing the right things you are going to get looks and opportunities in front of goal. Hopefully I can break it but a bigger thing is trying to get us to the World Cup.”
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