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Sounders legend Clint Dempsey opens up about why he retired in 2018: ‘I got burned out’

UPDATED: Sat., May 22, 2021

Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey applauds supporters as he walks off the field Sept. 1, 2018, in Seattle, following a ceremony in his honor.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey applauds supporters as he walks off the field Sept. 1, 2018, in Seattle, following a ceremony in his honor. (Associated Press)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Not needing any “fake love” is why former U.S. men’s national soccer team and Sounders FC star Clint Dempsey slipped into retirement with an Instagram post, he explained in a rare interview this week with The Crack Podcast.

Once Dempsey figured out how to turn his camera on, he participated in the audio/video show originated by Dempsey’s former USMNT teammates DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu with Mabricio Wilson. The episode featuring a nearly hourlong, candid interview with Dempsey dropped Tuesday.

“I got burned out,” said Dempsey of what prompted retirement. Speaking with a thick drawl akin to his east Texas roots, Dempsey and his wife Bethany live in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The couple have five children, with the youngest being born in August .

Dempsey was in a cycle of recovering from two non-life-threatening heart surgeries and minor injuries when he decided in the midst of the 2018 MLS season to retire. He made an Instagram post on Aug. 29 that read “Thank you it’s been real” with the peace sign emoji, symbolizing Dempsey’s self-given nickname “Deuce.”

The Sounders held an on-field ceremony for Dempsey before a win against Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 1, 2018, and aired a celebrity-filled video with well-wishes from the likes of Kobe Bryant, Macklemore and Megan Rapinoe. He even got an Alaskan fishing trip as a gift from the club.

Then Dempsey, 38, was gone from the public eye.

“It wasn’t career-threatening,” Dempsey said of the surgeries. “I feel like I couldn’t go at 100%. I don’t know if it was mentally or just what my body was telling me. I felt like I was kind of stuck in a certain gear, and I couldn’t push it as hard as I could before. … It wasn’t as enjoyable.”

Dempsey also shared that the USMNT not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup made it easier to retire because there wasn’t anything motivating him. Dempsey’s first heart surgery sidelined him for Seattle’s run to the 2016 MLS Cup title. He had 15 goals and five assists during the Sounders’ run to the 2017 league championship loss to Toronto FC but emphasized the World Cup is the pinnacle of all trophies to chase in soccer.

“I’ve never been the one that’s been like, ‘Man, I need to let everybody know I’m going to step away. We need to have this like last hurrah,’ ” Dempsey said during the podcast. “I don’t need anybody to treat me any different. (The Instagram post) is being real. Thank you for everything, but I don’t need any fake love. I appreciate the people who rode with me during it. I remember y’all, we had a great time. But I was never that type of person that felt I needed to do this last go-round and soak it all in.”

Onyewu appropriately described Dempsey’s playing style as “like an And-1 mixtape.”

“Trying to put something on it,” Dempsey replied.

Through a 15-year career, Dempsey played for the New England Revolution, Fulham FC, Tottenham Hotspur and Sounders. He holds the record for most goals scored by an American in the English Premier League, is second in all-time regular-season goals scored for the Sounders and bagged 57 goals for USMNT. The latter is tied with Landon Donovan, but Dempsey did it in 16 fewer matches.

Dempsey’s contorted facial expressions and fierce competitive spirit became memes and won hearts. He explained during the podcast that losing his sister Jennifer to a brain aneurysm as a youth and humble beginnings in which his family of seven experienced poverty helped make him a fearless fighter.

“Coming from a small town and feeling like you never quite could get on teams you wanted to get on when you try out; you wouldn’t get those breaks,” said Dempsey, who was raised in Nacogdoches, Texas. “You’re finally there and it was almost like you’re a wild dog and I gotta eat. I’ve got too many people to take care of. I’ve come too far to just come this far type of mindset.

“In a way, it helped me to be better. But at the same time, it also was kind of frustrating that I almost had to be that way to make it.”

The lighter moments during the interview were Dempsey and Beasley sharing stories about USMNT staff trying to “snitch” on them for allegedly returning to the hotel at 10 p.m. and confirming a story first shared by former Fulham teammate Danny Murphy about Dempsey punching through a window in anger when told an hour before kickoff he was pulled from the starting lineup.

Dempsey was a sub during the Europa League semifinal match, the club advancing to the final in 2010.

“I went through it and was like ‘Oh, damn!’ ” Dempsey said. “I pulled out and almost my ligaments were coming off and stuff. They stitched me up, I like wrapped my hand, played in the game, came on as a sub, we ended up winning, I came on in the second half.

“The next morning, I had to get surgery. I almost severed it enough that it would’ve been a long surgery, because if you sever the ligament enough then it was to be reattached or something like that. If you ever saw me scoring that I was doing this (hand wave in front of face) afterward and it was like, ‘Yeah! Y’all trying to keep me down and I’m still going.’ ”

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