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USMNT legend Clint Dempsey, coach Bruce Arena hash out differences, discuss rivalry with Landon Donovan

Written by on June 5, 2024

Years after their previous collaborations on the U.S. men’s national team, former head coach Bruce Arena and retired star Clint Dempsey reunited and recalled the differences that caused tension during their years on the international stage.

The pair met on the latest episode of Kickin’ It, CBS Sports Golazo Network’s interview show co-hosted by Dempsey. Arena was the latest guest on the show, reflecting on his decades long career in American soccer, including the suspension he received from MLS last year for “insensitive and inappropriate remarks.”

Arena was the USMNT coach during the first two years of Dempsey’s international career, as well as the last few months of his historic goalscoring tenure. He dealt with different versions of the ambitious player, which caused different challenges because Arena never had a chance to work with Dempsey in his prime. Dempsey has discussed the conflicts he felt with Arena on previous episodes of Kickin’ It but had a chance to address the coach himself, inspiring flashbacks to incidents nearly two decades ago as well as moments that took place much more recently.

Here’s a timeline of the flashpoints in Arena’s relationship with Dempsey, including input from both parties.

Early tensions

Dempsey made his senior team debut in 2004 during his rookie year with MLS’ New England Revolution and after experience in the youth national team set-up. The cold war of sorts was almost immediate — Arena described Dempsey as a “tough character” who would always “look at me like you wanted to kick my ass.” Arena also said that Dempsey “may have spoken three words to me in the years we were together. He was pretty reserved.” The fact that it took time for Dempsey to actually become a mainstay on the team meant there was always some uncertainty between the two.

“You bring me into camp and then I wouldn’t make the roster and I’d be like, ‘F—, dude. Every f—ing time,’” Dempsey said. “I just felt like I was never — I wasn’t in your plans and then I’d hear, ‘He’s a player that just likes to try shit.’”

While Dempsey viewed it as a derogatory comment, Arena said calling him “a player that just likes to try shit” was actually a compliment.

“I thought that’s a great quality.” Arena said. “That’s saying, ‘This guy has the balls to go on the field and f—ing play and do it.’”

“I respect that but I just felt like — and Thomas Rongen’s the same way — you felt that I had quality and balls to go out there and play,” Dempsey responded. “But I didn’t play. I was on the bench.”

Arena chalked it up to an inability to understand Dempsey and offered a brief apology.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Arena concluded. “I don’t have a whole understanding of your career with me and how things evolved. I apologize.”

Road to the 2006 World Cup

By the time the 2006 World Cup in Germany had arrived, Dempsey had a sizable role on the USMNT and Arena rewarded him with his first roster spot at the tournament. The ex-player was thankful for Arena’s role in a transformative moment in his career.

“I got to give Bruce thanks for picking me for the 2006 World Cup team, which allowed me to accomplish my dream of playing for my country in a World Cup and scoring in a World Cup, which then allowed me to get to Europe,” Dempsey said. 

Dempsey went on to spend five years at Fulham, scoring 50 Premier League goals in the process, before a season-long spell at Tottenham Hotspur that preceded his MLS return with the Seattle Sounders. Things may have panned out in the long run, but the journey to the 2006 World Cup was a complicated one thanks to the dynamics between the national team and the Revolution, where Dempsey was still playing.

“I do know that early on in your career, I was going to bring you into camp and you had a run-in in New England,” Arena said. “And they asked me not to bring you into camp because I’d be showing them up.”

Dempsey said Arena’s exclusion increased the tension between the two.

“That was already after that January camp when things were going well and that was in a World Cup year, that was in 2006,” Dempsey said. “Then something happened with me and a player at the Revolution and then I didn’t get called in. It was a friendly away in Germany that I didn’t go to. It almost messed up, I guess, me not making the team, you know what I mean? That happened in a World Cup year.”

Arena felt that Dempsey should take some responsibility for the miscommunication between the two of them during that stretch of time.

“I would say this, that you should be at fault for that,” Arena said. “You should’ve said something. What am I going to do, cut your head off? If you have an issue, you should say something because I always thought that I tried to keep an open dialogue with the players. I’d say, ‘If there’s an issue, you got to talk to me.’”

Back to square one in 2017

Arena exited his post with the USMNT after the team failed to get out of the group stage in the 2006 World Cup, but returned in 2017 amid a troubled campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The U.S. lost to Mexico and Costa Rica in their opening matches of the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying, leading the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and re-hire Arena.

At first, Arena and Dempsey felt like they made strides. The two sat next to each other on the plane back from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama in March, the first time Arena feels they had properly gotten to know each other.

“I thought that was outstanding,” Arena said. “That’s the first time I ever really got to know you. It was great and there was always a little bit of a distance between you and I and probably coaches. That’s probably the way you are and what we’re seeing here is the challenge that coaches have, especially with elite players.”

At 34 years old, though, Dempsey felt his role on the national team was shrinking. He said that his relationship with Arena took a turn in only the coach’s third game of the qualifying campaign when the U.S. beat Trinidad and Tobago in June.

“I guess the feeling of, I guess, a little bit of hurt, it started once I got subbed in the Trinidad game in Denver,” Dempsey said. “That’s kind of, for me, when our relationship kind of changed a little bit. I thought from that moment on, I was kind of seen as a super sub-type player and that didn’t sit well with me but like you said, I was a bastard and that was my mentality.”

Dempsey also took issue with Arena’s tactical decisions during the USMNT’s match at Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of World Cup qualifying, when the team lost 2-1 and missed out on the 2018 World Cup — the first time they would miss the competition since 1986.

“Then we go down to Trinidad and then some of the decisions that were made — I’m not saying I should’ve been starting but having Bobby Wood with Jozy [Altidore], I think Christian [Pulisic] being in that attacking role, there wasn’t really that much defending in a game where you needed to get a result, get a draw at least, to get out of that group,” Dempsey said. “Then the conversation after the game. You brought me on at halftime, I hit the post, did what I could do and then you came up to me and said, ‘I appreciate you giving your all,’ and I was like, ‘Well, f— yeah. That’s what I always f—ing do.’ That doesn’t change. I don’t come back from two heart procedures to f— around. I want to be here. I want to win. I want us to be successful.”

The Dempsey-Donovan rivalry

There was a longstanding debate about the talents of Dempsey and Landon Donovan during their playing days, as both vied for the unofficial title of the best player on the USMNT. Dempsey said he always felt that Arena was “a Landon guy” as the person who really gave Donovan his first real shot on the USMNT, playing a big role in Arena’s 2002 World Cup team that went to the quarterfinals. Arena and Donovan also successfully paired up at the LA Galaxy later, becoming one of MLS’ most successful teams.

“I think I felt that way and that could’ve been insecurity,” Dempsey admitted. “That could’ve been what I needed to motivate myself to be like, ‘I’m going to show everybody.’”

Arena quashed the idea fairly quickly.

“I had the greatest respect for Landon,” Arena said. “I brought him at 17, 18 years old to the national team. His first game was in LA against Mexico in a friendly at the LA Coliseum in front of 90,000 people and he scored a goal. And when I first met Landon, I was coaching D.C. United and we went down to Bradenton for a preseason camp and Landon was a complete asshole, talking shit and everything on the field. [Marco] Etcheverry was going to kill him but he was terrific and [DaMarcus] Beasley was playing and I saw those guys and I was like, ‘Wow. These guys got a future,’ and I brought him in and I got to know him.”

At this point in the rivalry, though, Arena suggested he might pick Dempsey or Donovan.

“Landon’s a great guy,” Arena said. “If he had the edge that [Dempsey] had, Landon would’ve been unbelievable — not that he wasn’t. He was a great player but he didn’t have the fire that Clint brought, but am I a Landon guy? I’m everybody’s guy.”

The post USMNT legend Clint Dempsey, coach Bruce Arena hash out differences, discuss rivalry with Landon Donovan first appeared on CBS Sports.


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