Union get rare visit from Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders and U.S. national team star

MLS Red Bulls Sounders Soccer-28092017-0001
Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey celebrates after he scored a goal against the New York Red Bulls during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Seattle.

The day is coming when Clint Dempsey will no longer be a professional soccer player.

Exactly when it will arrive isn’t known yet. But this year is the first of the 34-year-old’s 13-season career when that time has been visible on the horizon.

Dempsey isn’t a guaranteed 90-minute player anymore for the U.S. national team, as a new era of young attacking prospects begins to make its mark.

The Seattle Sounders have been on notice since last August, when an irregular heartbeat sidelined Dempsey for the rest of the calendar year.

But that tough, spunky kid who learned the world’s game on fields in the small east Texas town of Nagodoches is still going. And he still has the one skill that matters most.

If a big goal is needed, Dempsey is the man for the job.

“When his team is up against it, whether it’s Seattle or the national team, and they need someone to make a play, Clint is as good at that as anyone our country has ever had,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, who played against Dempsey in MLS in the early 2000s.

Four of Dempsey’s 12 goals for Seattle this year have been game-winners or game-tiers. Two more extended one-goal leads to two.

In this year’s national team World Cup qualifiers, he scored a hat trick at home against Honduras and the opener in a 1-1 tie at Panama.

In this summer’s Gold Cup, he tied Landon Donovan’s national team goals record with a free kick that sealed the semifinal win over Costa Rica.

Four days later, he helped Sounders teammate Jordan Morris score the title-winner in the game’s final minutes.

Things haven’t been as rosy since then. The Americans must beat Panama in Orlando next Friday and Trinidad & Tobago on the road the following Tuesday to qualify for next year’s World Cup.

But would anyone really be surprised if Dempsey scores the goal that saves the ship and books the ticket to Russia?

Just ask Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, a longtime friend of Dempsey’s. Though it isn’t official yet, the two of them are likely to head to Orlando after Sunday’s game at Talen Energy Stadium (1 p.m., ESPN).

“The way he carries himself as a person on and off the field, he has this never-back-down personality about him that makes him so strong mentally and physically,” Bedoya said. “He’s always striving to be better, and is always up for any challenge.”

The same Union fans who boo Dempsey’s name Sunday will cheer it a few days later, as they have done so many times over the years. It is a strange juxtaposition, but it is the essential nature of soccer. The world’s game weaves together professional and national team allegiances like no other sport in the American tapestry.

Dempsey has played five times for the national team in the Philadelphia region, recording three goals — two game-winners and an equalizer — and an assist.

He has only played one game here for the Sounders, but it was a big one: the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final. He scored the game-winning goal.

It’s hard to know yet whether Sunday’s game will be his last appearance here. His national team career is likely to end next year; his club career could go on. This much is certain: the Sounders won’t be back here until 2019. So it’s worth appreciating Dempsey’s legacy while he’s in town.

Union vs. Seattle Sounders

Sunday, 1 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium

TV/online streaming: ESPN, ESPN Deportes, WatchESPN.com

Union’s record: 9-13-9, 36 points (10th in the East); 8-4-3 at home
Seattle’s record: 12-8-11, 47 points (4th in the West); 3-7-6 on the road

Series history: Union 3 wins, Seattle 5 wins, 2 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 2 wins, Seattle 1 win, 2 ties

Seattle players to watch

Midfielder Cristian RoldanHe brings passing vision and a big engine to the center of the Sounders’ midfield. The 22-year-old cracked the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup this summer, and has the potential to stay there for a while.

Defender Román Torres: If you’ve ever wondered what a football player would look like playing soccer, watch this beast of a centerback. He got his star turn at last year’s MLS Cup final, shutting down Toronto’s big attacking guns and scoring the title-winning penalty. You’ll likely also see him playing for Panama’s national team against the United States next week.

Goalkeeper Stefan Frei: There aren’t many goalkeepers in MLS as good as the Union’s Andre Blake, but Frei is up there. His spectacular saves in last year’s MLS Cup final still resonate, and he made another big one Wednesday against Cascadian rival Vancouver.

This story has been corrected. The original version said the U.S. won at Panama in World Cup qualifying earlier this year. It was a 1-1 tie, not a win.