Now that all the overwrought reaction to Landon Donovan’s axing from the United States World Cup team is over, it’s time we focused on the here and now — Clint Dempsey is the star of the team

By Mary Cunningham

The obsession with the bottom of the roster is misguided. Teams shine at the World Cup because their stars do, not because players at the end of the bench emerge from obscurity. That means any discussion of the prospects for Team USA, which plays the first of three pre-tournament friendlies today against Azerbaijan in San Francisco, has to begin with captain Clint Dempsey, perhaps the best non-goalkeeper this country has ever produced.

Depending on one’s perspective, this attacking midfielder with an innate knack for finding the goal is either the greatest goal-scorer in U.S. history or a head case who disappears for long stretches of games, or even seasons, only to emerge once everyone has written him off.

The best answer, probably, is a little bit of both.

“He’s not someone you marvel at for 90 minutes,” said Bruce Arena, coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who managed Dempsey at the 2006 World Cup. “You don’t ever know exactly what Clint you’re going to get when you take the field, but that’s the beauty of him.”

The Dempsey that the Seattle Sounders have gotten this season has dominated Major League Soccer, with eight goals in nine games. Since returning from a March suspension, he has been bold and ambitious, heeding the one word of advice Klinsmann always gives him: Attack!

Yet, in the bizarro world of U.S. soccer, Dempsey’s soaring recent success has only raised more questions. Can goals in MLS translate into goals in Brazil, when Dempsey and Team USA are going up against the world’s best—rather than rosters filled largely with players who have never cut it with the top teams in the top European leagues?

Those who know Dempsey best say that is precisely the kind of challenge he uses as motivation. Without it, he is lost, a trait he says he likely picked up as teenager who grew up humbly in the East Texas city of Nacogdoches. Dempsey would drive six hours round-trip twice a week to practice with a club team based in the Dallas suburbs.

Basically, every scientific study that has ever been done on the effect of anger on performance has shown that it saps energy and makes people trying to perform a task or a sport less effective.

However, “to play well, Clint always has to have a chip on his shoulder,” said Taylor Twellman, a former U.S. international who was close with Dempsey when they played together on the New England Revolution.

During his 2½ years as U.S. coach, Klinsmann has seized on that trait to get Dempsey to reach his potential. In January 2013, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Klinsmann declared that in his view Dempsey “hasn’t made s—” despite scoring 23 goals for the English Premier League side Fulham the previous season.

“You play for Fulham? Yeah, so?” he said then. “Show me you can play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team. There is always another level.”

Dempsey said recently he took those comments as nothing more than a coach challenging him to improve.

“It’s always good to know the criticism,” he said, adding that working with Klinsmann, a former world-class striker, has helped his game immeasurably. “He’s coached at the highest level and as a player achieved a lot of prestigious trophies and been around the block in terms of seeing some of the best teams and players in the world play. When he gives you a compliment…you know he has been there and saw it, and it gives you confidence.”

Shortly after ripping Dempsey, Klinsmann named him captain—a classic stick-and-carrot maneuver. He also positioned Dempsey as a “withdrawn forward,” which put him much farther into the attacking areas where Dempsey prefers to work, instead of on the wings where former U.S. coach Bob Bradley used to position him. Dempsey responded by scoring a goal against Costa Rica in a key World Cup qualifier.

But Dempsey didn’t score again during the run of play in the next six qualifying matches. Last summer, the criticism grew when Dempsey decided to leave Europe and sign with Seattle for $5 million a year—this at a time when Klinsmann wanted his best players to play against the toughest competition. Even Sigi Schmid, the Sounders’ coach and the chief beneficiary of the move, said, “What’s best for your game is to play at the highest level possible.”

Dempsey, 31, had spent the last season struggling to start consistently for Tottenham, his last Premier League club, so he chose a place where he knew playing time wouldn’t be an issue. The idea was to score a lot and regain his confidence. After arriving in Seattle, he scored just one goal in nine games. Then he spent the winter on loan at Fulham, where he failed to register a goal or an assist in seven appearances. In March, MLS suspended Dempsey two games for whacking an opponent in the groin during a game.

While outsiders saw the incident as the latest sign that Dempsey was falling apart at the worst possible moment, Twellman, his former teammate, said the suspension and the struggles at Fulham played right into Dempsey’s psychological playbook.

“The best players always feel they have something to prove,” Twellman said, “and now he’s got something to prove again.”

While Dempsey remains several levels below the world’s great attacking players, Schmid said his innate creativity, developed when Dempsey was a youth playing with older men in Nacogdoches, is hard to miss. During a recent practice, Schmid said Dempsey carried the ball down the field, “and turned and laid it off and it was almost like in one motion, and there are not many players on the field who could do that. His mind just works that way, and he’s got those quick feet.”

With the final push for the World Cup beginning, the question is whether those quick feet can give the U.S. the production it can’t survive without.

“I’m on a good run of form right now,” Dempsey said after a recent Sounders practice. “When you are an attacking player, you always want to influence the game in a positive way whether you are scoring goals or getting an assist, and that adds to your confidence. When your confidence is high, you see it in your play.”


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