TORONTO — Clint Dempsey was on the BMO Field sidelines for last year's MLS Cup final, shelved by a heart condition that threatened his future.
Seattle and Toronto FC will battle for MLS glory once again in Saturday's final, and Dempsey is grateful to be playing in the game this time.
Two days before the rematch, the American star fondly recalled last year's victory, and the moment defender Roman Torres slotted the penalty kick past 'keeper Clint Irwin that clinched Seattle's win in a shootout.
"It was tough not being on the field being able to battle with the guys," he said Thursday. "Team battled really hard, they were able to see the game out in penalties.
"(I) was running on the field, celebrating with the guys, and happy we were able to bring the Cup to Seattle. Happy to be back playing again, and having the opportunity to battle in the game."
The 34-year-old Texan first noticed the symptoms of an irregular heartbeat in February of 2016, prompting to the Sounders to closely monitor the forward. After frightening test results in August of that year, the team shut him down for the rest of the season. He wasn't finally cleared to play again until last winter.
While the former U.S. team captain, and one of the most celebrated American players ever, said he's never taken a moment of his career for granted, the potentially life-threatening condition made him cherish being back on the pitch.
"It changes (my outlook) in the aspect of not knowing if you're going to be able to come back possibly, and having to get two (heart) procedures done," Dempsey said. "But as pre-season went on and I started feeling better and getting more games under my belt, I started feeling confident, started making more of an impact.
"Yeah, you start enjoying it more because you're able to still compete at a high level, make an impact, play the game that you love for a little bit longer. In that aspect, yeah, you do appreciate it a little bit more."
Perhaps that's why Dempsey didn't look the least bit concerned with the frigid conditions that plagued Thursday's practice. Both teams trained at Toronto FC's practice facility north of downtown, where the cutting wind made it feel far colder than the reported minus-1 C.
Most players bundled up in tights and tuques, with neck warmers pulled halfway up over faces. Dempsey, wearing one red boot and one black, was one of a brave few that went with bare legs under shorts.
Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer shrugged off the cold conditions in a pre-practice news conference.
"It's 'control the controllables,' that's one of my favourite sayings," Schmetzer said. "So, we don't control the weather, we deal with it. Seattle is almost in the same parallel, it was cold out there when we left, so no issues. Stef (Frei, Seattle 'keeper) will have the orange ball (for snowy weather) so he can see it better. Clint can score with orange balls or regular balls, it doesn't matter. So, we'll be OK."
Dempsey led the Sounders with 12 goals in the regular season, and has added three in this post-season run to Saturday's final.
Arguably his biggest moment came in the Western Conference semifinal against Vancouver. After a 0-0 draw in the opener of the two-leg series, Dempsey found himself in a tiny pocket at the top of the 18-yard-box, and launched a shot past Vancouver's goalkeeper in the 56th minute of Game 2. Half an hour later, Dempsey added an insurance goal, then smiling, booted the ball high up into the crowd in celebration.
"What does he bring to the team? It's what we've all seen over the course of his career," said Schmetzer. "He's tenacious inside the box, he scores goals, he's a good passer, he leads by example."
Dempsey and Toronto's Drew Moor were college teammates at Furman University, and so Dempsey was happy to help guide Moor through the Toronto defender's heart scare this season. They talked about treatment options, recovery, and returning to the pitch.
"We had a good conversation," Dempsey said. "I told him what my experience was and just let him make his own decisions on what he wanted to do. It's good to see him back out on the field.
"It's always scary to have any type of heart issue, but was glad that we were able to talk about it and maybe make his decision a little bit easier."
Seattle went 14-11-9 in the regular season to finish second in the west behind Portland.
Toronto earned the Supporters' Shield for having the league's best regular-season record (20-9-5).
According to a Seattle report, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso won't play Saturday. Alonso has been sidelined with a quadriceps injury and didn't pass a fitness test.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
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