U.S. Soccer, Player Development, and the Perception of Clint Dempsey


With the end of the USSF Developmental Academy, the debate on player development within the United States is back in the spotlight. Is it better to have a traditional club/high school soccer model that sends players to college soccer, or are specified academies the best way to develop players? We've had our say on the discussion in the past, and today we look at two of the greatest players in American history and how their career paths followed the respective models and therefore dictated how fans perceive them today.

You ask the average American soccer fan, and they'll tell you that Christian Pulisic is the next Landon Donovan, the new face of American soccer. The latter part of that statement is a foregone conclusion, Pulisic at 21, is already the face of American soccer. It is the earlier part of that statement that needs reexamining; The idea that Landon Donovan is the best player the U.S. national team has ever produced. When in reality, Clint Dempsey's career path is every bit as good as Landon Donovan's, if not better.

A year and four days apart in age, Landon Donovan at 38 and Clint Dempsey at 37 marked the last generation of American soccer. Yet their paths could not have been more different, and in those differing paths lies the difference in perception.

Dempsey became the poster boy for success with the high school/college soccer system. While the DA, on the other hand, was designed to create more players like Landon Donovan.

At 17, Landon Donovan was named the best player at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He was the star of the federation's first DA experiment with IMG. It was a revelation to see an American teen named the best player in a tournament featuring the likes of Adriano, Mikel Arteta, and Michael Essien.

While Donovan was reaching unprecedented heights for U.S. Youth soccer, Clint Dempsey was still playing high school soccer in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Even after Dempsey was chosen 8th in the 2004 MLS draft following a stellar college career at Furman University, the focus was on Freddy Adu, the 14-year-old kid drafted 1st overall, tabbed to add to the "golden generation" of American soccer led by the 21-year-old Landon Donovan.

By the time Dempsey would finally play a professional game in 2004, Donovan had already played 90 club games, 57 international games, and was named the best young player at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

If their careers had ended at this point, no doubt Landon Donovan would rightfully be considered the best American player of all time.

So what happened over the next decade-plus to even the playing field? Clint Dempsey grew into his own as a playmaker and goal scorer for club and the national team.

Between 2005-06, while Donovan was headed back to the MLS after another failed season in Europe, Dempsey was headed in the other direction. Dempsey would play three MLS seasons, reaching two finals, before becoming the most expensive MLS player ever. At 23, Dempsey signed for Fulham and would become the most prolific American player to have ever played in Europe.

At the end of their careers:

Clint Dempsey played in 275 games for Fulham and Tottenham scoring 72 goals. Donovan, on the other hand, scored a grand total of two European goals and spent the majority of his career in the MLS.

Dempsey's 2011-12 season will go down as one of the greatest seasons for an American, finishing as the 4th top scorer in the premier league with 17 goals and 23 total on the season.

Dempsey holds the record for most goals scored in Europe by an American player despite only playing six full seasons.

Perhaps the most telling part is that Dempsey and Donovan both finished on the same number of international goals even though Donovan got a 57 game head start while Clint Dempsey was playing college soccer.

Ironically, Dempsey and Donovan both finished on 57 international goals. It's almost the perfect case study for the two American models of player development. Some lean towards developmental academies, while others promote the high school/club soccer model.

This isn't to say that one is better or worse than the other. But at the end of the day, it didn't matter where they started, Dempsey and Donovan both finished at 57 international goals. Do with that information what you want.

Dempsey and Donovan both had careers worthy of recognition amongst the best of all time. Along with the likes of Tim Howard, Alexi Lalas, and Claudio Reyna. It would just be accurate that when debating the next great American soccer player, at the very minimum, Clint Dempsey's name is mentioned just as much as anyone else.

There's nothing wrong with saying we're looking for the next Clint Dempsey, his career was just as good as, if not better than any other American who has played the game.

This is the latest in a series where we break down aspects of youth and college soccer in the United States.

Follow and subscribe as we continue to break down more of college soccer and what to expect over the next few months.

Latest posts in our blog

Read what's new this week

Kyrie Irving has made headlines for a lot of reasons over the past year, but in the last few weeks is where he's looked closest to making the decision to never play basketball again. First were the rumors that if traded, he would simply retire. Then came the news that he would not be taking on the vaccine, even if...

The overlooked aspect of team building is making moves that won't make headlines and will make fans of the team scratch their heads in the moment. It's easy to point to the acquisitions of stars, but it's the moves you make that go under the radar and pop up deep in the playoffs like Woah, look how smart this team...

Compared to other individual awards the NBA hands out, the Most Improved Player award is the most unpredictable. At times, players that showed flashes of stardom the year before end up winning, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2017 and Julius Randle in 2021. Other times, players come out of nowhere for breakout seasons, like CJ McCollum in 2016 and...