Clint Dempsey rev­els in hat trick that pow­ered U.S. to 6-0 rout of Hon­duras.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

san jose — In the months lead­ing to a World Cup qual­i­fier that the United States was des­per­ate to win, Clint Dempsey wasn’t sure he would ever play soc­cer again.

Never mind earn­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to train­ing camp, be­ing asked by Bruce Arena 48 hours be­fore kick­off whether he would be able to start, scor­ing three goals in 22 min­utes, of­fer­ing a mil­i­tary salute to an ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence, ac­cept­ing Jozy Alti­dore’s of­fer to take a free kick to com­plete the hat trick, clos­ing within two goals of the pro­gram’s ca­reer record and in­spir­ing a 6-0 romp over Hon­duras on Fri­day.

Side­lined for six months with an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat, Dempsey saw his stel­lar ca­reer hang­ing in the bal­ance through the Seat­tle Sounders’ MLS cham­pi­onship run and a long win­ter of doc­tors’ vis­its, tests and re­flec­tion. The na­tional team was the fur­thest thing from his mind.

“There’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity you are not go­ing to be able to come back and be at that high level,” said Dempsey, who turned 34 this month. “You have to work hard and make sure ev­ery­thing is right. It was a tough process. I went through that, not re­ally know­ing.

“You’re just grate­ful for ev­ery day, grate­ful for ev­ery game you get to play in be­cause you never know when it’s go­ing to be taken from you.”

Given the med­i­cal path he had to fol­low and the wait­ing that ac­com­pa­nied it, Dempsey didn’t seem to mind be­ing the last one out of the Avaya Sta­dium locker room after ran­dom se­lec­tion for drug-test­ing. The team bus was long gone; he re­turned to the ho­tel in the equip­ment van.

“There’s mo­ments where you are sit­ting at home and pray­ing it’s go­ing to work out,” he con­tin­ued. “Just blessed that I can keep go­ing. It’s what I love to do. Hope­fully there is some time left.”

There’s time to make U.S. his­tory. With his sec­ond in­ter­na­tional hat trick, Dempsey raised his goal haul to 55, two short of Lan­don Dono­van’s ca­reer record. What once seemed like a re­mote pur­suit now ap­pears in­evitable. He will get a crack at it Tues­day at Panama, an­other im­por­tant match in the Amer­i­cans’ climb back into qual­i­fy­ing con­tention after they lost their first two fi­nal­round games last fall.

Had the United States been at full strength for th­ese pair of matches, Dempsey likely would have been in re­serve. How­ever, Bobby Wood and Jor­dan Mor­ris, Dempsey’s Seat­tle team­mate, picked up in­juries in their last club games be­fore re­port­ing for U.S. duty.

“We didn’t have any­one else. Made it easy for me,” Arena said, grin­ning. On a se­ri­ous note: “Watch­ing Clint from game one to game three with Seat­tle, it was im­pres­sive the way he kept im­prov­ing. He played late Sun­day, comes in late Sun­day night, a lit­tle train­ing Mon­day, feels good. It’s re­mark­able. I said, ‘He’s got to play.’ ”

Con­fir­ma­tion of a start­ing role came Wed­nes­day.

“You know me,” Dempsey said. “I’m a fighter, so I’m look­ing for the op­por­tu­nity to get out there and show that I should be around still. It was great to play a part.”

Dempsey went the dis­tance, mesh­ing with Alti­dore and 18year-old sen­sa­tion Chris­tian Pulisic in pro­duc­ing the U.S. team’s largest out­put in the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing since the six-team for­mat was im­ple­mented ahead of the 1998 World Cup.

Dempsey and Arena have his­tory. As a young east Texan, he was part of Arena’s first ten­ure as U.S. coach, scor­ing against Ghana in the 2006 World Cup.

“I owe a lot to Bruce,” he said. “It’s great to come full cir­cle again.”

Against Hon­duras, Dempsey’s first goal in­stalled a three-goal lead be­fore half­time and all but se­cured three points.

Pulisic made it pos­si­ble with a scoop pass. Dempsey set­tled it with his right shoul­der and, while fall­ing, un­leashed a ven­omous shot into the top of the net.

Four min­utes into the sec­ond half, Pulisic sent him in alone for a com­posed fin­ish and 5-0 lead. Then in the 54th, Pulisic drew a foul a few strides beyond the penalty area.

Dempsey wasn’t plan­ning to take it. “Take it,” Alti­dore said. With the goal­keeper cheat­ing for­ward, Dempsey sent a swerv­ing, high ef­fort to the back side of the tar­get.

“Man, he’s a beast,” mid­fielder Ale­jan­dro Be­doya said. “I’m sure in the back of his head, he’s go­ing for that scor­ing record, even though he won’t ad­mit it. I’m just so happy for him.”

Of Dono­van’s mark, Dempsey said: “It’s in your mind. If it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t. I’m go­ing to keep push­ing. The most im­por­tant thing is qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup. That’s more im­por­tant than me try­ing to break a record.”

Arena makes ros­ter moves

Two play­ers who started Fri­day were among four dropped from the ros­ter ahead of Tues­day’s World Cup qual­i­fier in Panama.

Mid­fielder Se­bas­tian Llet­get, who scored the open­ing goal be­fore leav­ing mo­ments later with a left foot in­jury, will re­turn to the Los An­ge­les Gal­axy for fur­ther eval­u­a­tion. John Brooks, a start­ing cen­tral de­fender who left in the 70th minute with an ill­ness stem­ming from what the U.S. del­e­ga­tion said was a si­nus in­fec­tion, will re­turn to Ger­man club Hertha Ber­lin.

For­ward Jor­dan Mor­ris and de­fender Michael Orozco, who were not in uni­form Fri­day, were re­leased.

SEAN M. HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES

Clint Dempsey has scored 55 goals for the U.S. na­tional team, two short of Lan­don Dono­van’s record.

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