Clint Dempsey's legacy? For young USMNTers, a 'pioneer' and inspiration

Yahoo Sports
Clint Dempsey scored at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, all the while inspiring the next generation of USMNT players. (Getty)
Clint Dempsey scored at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, all the while inspiring the next generation of USMNT players. (Getty)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Clint Dempsey scored his first goal for the United States men’s national team, Tyler Adams was 6 years old.

DeAndre Yedlin and Cristian Roldan were pre-teens growing up on the West Coast. Zack Steffen had just turned 10 in Pennsylvania. Kellyn Acosta hadn’t yet turned 10 in Texas.

Last week – 56 more international goals later – Dempsey retired. This week, Yahoo Sports spoke with around a dozen of those current national teamers who grew up watching “Deuce.” Some eventually became teammates, others mere admirers. Regardless, they told of a legend who had a profound impact on the sport in America – because he had a profound impact on players like themselves.

Most tabbed that Ghana goal – the most recent one – as their favorite of Dempsey’s many. But when asked for their lasting Clint memories, Dempsey’s national team exploits were secondary. The burgeoning generation of USMNT youngsters saw Dempsey as a trailblazer in the English Premier League, reaching heights at a prestigious level that no other American ever had.

Why USMNT youngsters see Dempsey as a ‘pioneer’

Dempsey was far from the first or only American to make the EPL leap. But he was the most successful. The 23-goal season, the move to Spurs … they inspired soccer-playing teens all over the United States.

“Watching Clint at Fulham was my earliest memory, but the biggest for me was his transfer to Tottenham,” Adams says. “I was 12 years old. That’s really what sparked me starting to watch the Premier League, wanting to wake up to watch those games.”

Says Matt Miazga, who looked up to Deuce: “He was that American player playing in the Premier League.”

Steffen would sit with his father on weekends and watch Dempsey. “To have an American over there was always motivation,” he says.

Thousands of miles away in Southern California, Paul Arriola would do similarly. “You’re young, and you’re constantly watching the Premier League,” he says. “Every Saturday morning or Sunday morning. And for an American to be there, to be able to watch him, and look up to him as a guy you aspire to be, in a place where you want to be,” was special.

Says Andrija Novakovich: “It was always cool seeing an American guy do it in England.”

Says Alex Bono: “There were guys before him, but as I was getting involved in soccer, he was a guy that I looked up to as one of the pioneers of U.S. soccer.”

By the time Yedlin made the jump overseas to Tottenham, Dempsey was back in Seattle. The two overlapped in the Pacific Northwest. Now Yedlin was considering joining Dempsey’s former club. “I talked to him a lot before I went over,” Yedlin says. “He gave me a lot of great advice. … He’s kind of like a big brother figure to me.”

Current USMNTers’ favorite Dempsey goals

Miazga, Novakovich, Aaron Long and Shaq Moore all pinpoint June 16, 2014, Natal, minute one:

As the new generation grew and developed, though, they began to take the field alongside Dempsey. It’s the more recent goals, therefore, that are etched into their minds. Gyasi Zardes loved Dempsey’s winner against Paraguay at Copa America Centenario – because he assisted it.

Acosta and Arriola picked out the record-tying free kick against Costa Rica in the 2017 Gold Cup semis. The former watched it from midfield. The latter had started, then made way for Dempsey 15 minutes earlier.

The best memories, actually, aren’t goals at all. They’re the personal interactions between the kids and the legend they grew up idolizing.

When the idol became a teammate – or foe

On the day Dempsey retired, Roldan told local media his first Dempsey story. “I actually practiced with the Sounders when I was at the University of Washington,” he began. “I fouled him really hard in training.”

Roldan tumbled after the foul. He was immediately apologetic.

“I’m like, ‘Clint, I’m sorry.’ I’m this college kid, this skinny dude, just saying, ‘Yo, I’m sorry, I know who you are, I’m really sorry.’

“He comes back to me, he says, ‘I didn’t know I was running into a brick wall.’ I remember those words exactly.”

Adams remembers being on the wrong end of a Dempsey challenge. It was this past season. “He got subbed on at halftime,” Adams recalls, “and I remember him fouling me and looking at me while I was on the ground.”

Acosta had a similar clash. “We played in Dallas right before a [U.S. national team] camp, and kind of got into it right before halftime,” he says. “Some words were exchanged. And right when we got to camp, it was like nothing happened. I was like, ‘Man, what’s going on with this guy?’

“It just shows that he’s a passionate guy on and off the field. … He was a leader, a mentor to me, and a guy I looked up to since I was I don’t know how old.”

And finally, Yedlin’s favorite Dempsey memory? “When he ripped up the ref’s book,” he says with a smile.

“I wasn’t playing at that time, but I was there. That’s just classic. I like the mentality. He doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. He’s gonna go and do his thing. That’s Clint.”

Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre contributed to this report.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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