SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A strong argument for Clint Dempsey as the best American player ever could have been made long before Friday night, when his 54-minute hat trick in a 6-0 drubbing of Honduras put the U.S. back on course to qualify for next summer's World Cup in Russia.
It was a signature performance and all the more remarkable considering that it came in the 34-year-old's first international following an eight-month layoff because of a heart scare that threatened to end his career. It also cemented Dempsey's legacy as "Mr. Clutch" once and for all.
Dempsey's scoring rate of 0.42 goals per game now towers over Landon Donovan's 0.36. His three strikes against Honduras made him the all-time leader in World Cup qualifying games for the Americans, surpassing Jozy Altidore. They also left him just two goals shy of Donovan's career mark of 57 despite having played 26 fewer games. It's also worth noting that 15 of Donovan's strikes came from the penalty spot, compared to just six for Dempsey.
"Clint's record speaks for itself," captain Michael Bradley said.
That is no slight on Donovan, a brilliant player in his own right who will always be underappreciated by some both at home and overseas because he had the audacity to spend the bulk of his career in MLS and not in one of Europe's elite leagues.
Anyway, there's little 18-year-old Christian Pulisic -- who scored a goal and set up two of Dempsey's against Los Catrachos -- on pace to eclipse both players in the future. As a key attacker for Champions League quarterfinalists Borussia Dortmund, Pulisic has already accomplished things at club level that Dempsey or Donovan never did.
But for now, though, Dempsey deserves the "best-ever" distinction. It's a testament to his longevity, competitiveness and his flat-out refusal to stop producing at the sport's highest level.
"You know me, I'm a fighter," he said after Friday's match. "I looked for the opportunity to try to get out there and show that I should be around still."
He did that and more.
Dempsey wasn't even supposed to be included on the roster for Friday's game and the qualifier at Panama on Tuesday night. But his strong play in Seattle's first three games of the MLS season convinced Bruce Arena to call him up. Even then, Dempsey only became a lock in the lineup after Bobby Wood was forced to withdraw from the squad with a back injury.
"We didn't have anyone else -- it made it easy for me," Arena said, only half-kidding. "We had a full team when we planned the roster weeks ago, and one would think that Altidore and Wood would start the game. But watching Clint from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3 with Seattle, it was impressive the way he kept improving," Arena continued. "Checking with his fitness coaches there, we knew he could play.
"He's like: 'How many minutes do you think you can give me?'" Dempsey said of his conversation with the Arena. "I said 'I'll give you all the minutes I can.'"
That's Dempsey in a nutshell.
"In the back of his head he's going for that scoring record, but he won't admit it," midfielder Alejandro Bedoya joked.
"If it comes it comes, if it don't it don't," said Dempsey, in his Texas drawl, of surpassing Donovan's mark, one that not long ago seemed untouchable. "I'll keep pushing."
It would be fitting if the record-breaker -- and it does seem like a matter of when, not if -- comes in June in Mexico City. Dempsey has never scored against El Tri, the one blemish on his otherwise-sterling résumé.
A trip to a fourth World Cup -- he has scored in each of three he's already played in, the only American to do so -- now seems likely too, provided the Americans qualify. And after Friday's performance, it's not a reach to think that he could even be in contention to start in Russia at the age of 35. Not that Dempsey is about to take anything for granted, especially after being confronted with the possibility of retirement late last year.
"That would be great if I could be around for that," he said.
In the meantime, it will be fascinating to watch Pulisic and Dempsey work together as the torch passes inevitably from the latter to the former. Friday marked the pair's first time in a U.S. lineup. It won't be their last.
Pulisic gushed afterward that Dempsey is "easy" to play with.
"He's strong, he's technical, he makes good runs and he always gives good support. That's exactly what you need from a forward, and he's clinical," Pulisic said.
For now at least, Dempsey is the American player against whom all others ought to be judged.