Admit it, when the news of Clint Dempsey having an irregular heartbeat first emerged last month you probable shrugged it off and figured it wasn't that serious. For the past decade, Dempsey had seemed almost bulletproof, even as defenders constantly chopped at him. He endured it all and kept on coming back, scoring goals and delivering in the biggest of moments.
Tuesday's news that Dempsey's condition would force him to miss the rest of the year served as the real wake-up call we all needed to show that Dempsey is human, and remind us that we can't take sporting heroes for granted.
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The Seattle Sounders and the U.S. national team must now close out 2016 without their lead attacking star, who would have been counted on to deliver as he always has, in the most important of matches. Seattle's drive for a playoff spot, and the U.S. team's brutal first two matches of the hex — against Mexico and Costa Rica — were tailor-made for Dempsey, but he won't be around, and there is no telling just when he will return.
So who will step up in his place? The Sounders have already seen Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris form a new dynamic duo that has them looking dangerous even without the goal-scoring Texan. While Seattle would obviously prefer to have Dempsey, his absence is creating an opportunity for Morris to take a leading role he may not otherwise have been given in his rookie season.
Dempsey's absence does cut into Seattle's chances of lifting its first MLS Cup, but the playoffs are looking like a good bet, especially with Morris shining and Lodeiro looking like the best pickup of the season.
The impact of Dempsey's absence could be felt more by the U.S., which counted on him as its best attacker at June's Copa America. Sure, Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan stepped up in September's World Cup qualifying victories, but the hexagonal clashes against Mexico and Costa Rica in November will be much, much tougher games, the very kind of games in which Dempsey made a habit of performing well.
Thinking long term, Dempsey's absence has forced the U.S. to deal with what was always an inevitable task: figuring out how to cope in the post-Dempsey era. He will be 35 when the next World Cup is played, so it always seemed unlikely he would remain a key figure by that time. But when he stepped up at Copa America and showed that he is still the best attacking player the U.S. has, even at 32, it was easy to wonder just when he would slow down, and just who would be there to take over his role.
In the short term, no one U.S. player will fill the void, but we just happen to be in the midst of a period where several American attacking players are in good form. Altidore, Bobby Wood, Kljestan and Pulisic are all playing well, and Fabian Johnson can also make an impact in an attacking role, though it seems more likely manager Jurgen Klinsmann will call on him to be a fullback against Mexico and Costa Rica.
Dempsey's absence will put more pressure on Altidore to deliver, although scoring in qualifiers is nothing new for him. He recently broke Dempsey's record for World Cup qualifying goals. A healthy and in-form Altidore can definitely pick up the scoring slack, though Dempsey's creative spark will be a bit tougher to replace.
The easy, and popular, answer for how to replace Dempsey's creativity is Pulisic, the budding star who just turned 18 and helped set up an equalizer against Real Madrid in UEFA Champions League action. He has enjoyed a breakout September, for both club and country, and certainly looks like a player capable of making an impact against the toughest teams in CONCACAF. Given how good he has looked lately, it's tough to see him not in the starting lineup for the U.S. come November. That said, his speed and ability to go at defenders makes him better suited for the wing role he currently employs, rather than a central playmaking role.
Pulisic's day will come as a second striker or attacking midfielder for the U.S., but for the rest of this year, Kljestan has looked more than capable of pulling the strings in the U.S. attack. His experience, poise and sharpened passing touch have him in the best form of his career, and he's no stranger to playing in important qualifiers.
The Sounders and U.S. should still both enjoy strong finishes to 2016, even with Dempsey on the sidelines, but there is no doubt that when November rolls around, Dempsey's absence will be felt by those who grew accustomed to seeing him in important matches. It will be up to the likes of Altidore, Kljestan, Pulisic, Lodeiro and Morris to show they can handle replacing him, both in the short term and the long term.