For many people, 2016 was a bad year, and the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team was no exception. The team had low points, such as its 0-2 loss to Guatemala last March, but the lowest point was still looming.
The team bottomed out in November 2016 during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying final round, in which the six teams left in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football battle for a berth in the tournament. That's when the U.S. dropped a home game 1-2 to main rival Mexico and then followed that performance with a 0-4 away loss to Costa Rica.
Those losses left the U.S. in last place in the final round, the Hexagonal, with just eight games left to play. The team fired then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann and replaced him with Bruce Arena in hopes that the U.S. still had time to reach the World Cup.
Sitting in last place, the team returned to the qualifying matches on March 24 at home against Honduras, and team captain Clint Dempsey kick-started the U.S.'s renewed mission is to reach Russia in 2018.
The team proved that with a 6-0 victory against Honduras. Dempsey led the team with a hat trick of three goals in his first game in nine months, and the midfield forward helped the U.S. move from last place to fourth in the group.
The U.S. Men's National Soccer Team played its last qualifying match before the summer on March 28, needing points to stay in the race for the World Cup. Dempsey once again put the U.S. on his back with a goal in the 39th minute, which gave his team a 1-0 lead over Panama.
Panama struck in the 43rd minute, tying the game at 1-1 before halftime. Neither team scored in the second half, and the draw leaves the U.S. in fourth place until June.
Dempsey's four goals in the last two games brought him to 56 career international goals—one goal short of tying Landon Donovan's U.S. men's team record of 57 goals and two goals short of becoming the men's all-time leading scorer.
The 6-foot, 1-inch, 170-pound player took the field with the national team for the first time in 2004 in a 2006 World Cup qualifying game and netted his first national team goal in 2005 in a 1-2 loss against England.
In the 2006 World Cup, Dempsey scored the only goal for the national team in a 1-2 loss to Ghana that sent the U.S. home from the tournament. Dempsey returned for the 2010 World Cup, where he scored the only goal for the U.S. yet again in a 1-1 tie with England.
Dempsey's goal against England helped the team finish on top of its group, but the U.S. fell in the knockout stage to Ghana. He was one of the best U.S. players on the field during the loss that ended his second World Cup.
For the 2014 World Cup, former coach Klinsmann cut Donovan from the roster, which left Dempsey to pick up the goal-scoring load for the U.S. Dempsey opened the tournament with the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history, scoring just 29 seconds into the match against Ghana in a 2-1 win.
Dempsey's goal exorcised some of the demons of two consecutive World Cup losses to the African nation and made him the first U.S. Men's National Soccer Team player to score in the both the 2014 and 2010 World Cups.
He followed the Ghana game with a goal in the U.S.'s match against Portugal, which helped the American squad reach a 2-2 tie. Dempsey led his teammates to the knockout stage, but Belgium eliminated them in the first game 2-1.
At 34 years old, Dempsey may not have another chance at a World Cup beyond 2018. He will be 36 years old when the tournament begins in Russia, which would put him at 40 years old when the 2022 World Cup begins in Qatar.
The U.S. star seems determined to drag his team kicking and screaming into the cup, but his job is also to teach the next generation of stars how to lead the national team.
The U.S. still has plenty of time left to reach the next World Cup, sitting in fourth place with four points—just one point behind Panama for third. The top three teams at the end of this stage reach the World Cup. Even if they aren't able to pull ahead, the fourth-place team and the fifth-place team in the AFC will still duke it out in a two-leg playoff to earn a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Dempsey leads the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team back to qualifying action hosting Trinidad & Tobago on June 8 and facing Mexico on June 11 in an away game.