Two and a half months removed from the night English tragedy and hubris again met up with its old historic pal, American pluck and grit, on a fateful night in Rustenburg; Clint Dempsey finds himself back in London, playing his familiar role as the gifted, opportunistic battler for his club side Fulham, who are hoping to avoid a third consecutive Barclay’s Premier League defeat. Fulham’s opponent on the day, Wigan Athletic, arrive at the cozy Craven Cottage having not tasted defeat in seven matches and for thirty minutes, despite waves of pressure from the home side, they appear poised for another match without losing the full three points.
The man from Nacogdoches, Texas, has other ideas. Receiving the ball in a small pocket of space five yards from the penalty area, he pirouettes past one defender and slides the ball in space near the left sideline, where it is collected by teammate Danny Murphy. Dempsey, meanwhile, calmly jogs forward, careful to stay onside. Murphy quickly plays the ball towards the left byline to the pacy Mexican Carlos Salcido, who, running out of space near the corner flag, lofts a cross towards the center-left area of the six yard box. At the last instant, the Texan breaks for the ball. His late movement confuses Wigan defender Antolin Alcarez, who turns to find Dempsey already in front of him. He reacts, but it is too late. Dempsey rises and meets Salcido’s cross and places it flawlessly past a helpless Ali Al Habsi in the right hand corner of the net. 1-0 Fulham.
Dempsey wasn’t finished. Minutes later, another Murphy-Salcido combination found him outmuscling Wigan captain Gary Caldwell (no easy task) and heading the ball towards goal. A marvelous save by Ali Al Habsi kept a second goal out, but this would prove to be merely a stop-gap to the inevitable. Shortly before halftime, Dempsey again made a late diagonal run, again besting Gary Caldwell and finding himself on the end of a fine pass from Chris Baird, which he slotted authoritatively home. Fulham led 2-0, and would settle for that score in collecting three points that saw them jump several spots in the table.
This was, to borrow a phrase with at least a relative level of English fame and acclaim, just “a day in the life” of Clint Dempsey, English Premier League footballer. The two goals in a match are rare, to be sure, but this type of dominant performance by the young American is becoming relatively commonplace. Dempsey has five goals in all competitions and has impressed more than just the fans at Craven Cottage, where he is now a fan favorite. He’s impressed the manager. To be fair, he’s impressed another manager—the fourth in his tenure in London. As for this manager, when asked to describe the brilliant performance of his American starlet, Mark Hughes was for once decidedly unboring: “It was a great header from Clint, but we’ve seen it before. I feel we’re a top ten side the way he’s playing right now and I won’t be persuaded otherwise.”
What to make of that? Well, it’s certainly heady stuff for a player who only two years prior was battling to stay in the eighteen consistently. Most impressive is the consistency Dempsey has shown in his game the past two campaigns. Dempsey has always been appreciated in club circles for his skill on the ball, dribbling ability and creativity, which at times lead to the most spectacular of moments, such as his now You Tube famous strike against Juventus in last year’s Europa league. The difference now is Dempsey is more complete, and as such more consistent. He’s taken the known commodities of his game and added smarter movement, increased efficiency in his passing (up 10 percent the last two years, sayeth the stats), and relentless effort, including defensively, an area where many reluctant to defend offensive-minded playmakers meet their doom in the battle to become complete players. The net result is a version of Clint that answers what was always the loudest criticism—that he can’t impact games where he isn’t fully involved in attack. Two games in succession this November demonstrate the point: a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea which saw Dempsey active and relentlessly (though with little success) attacking the Chelsea defense, and a dominating performance a week later, again to no avail, in a nil-nil draw with Newcastle that saw him denied only by a splendid afternoon from Magpie keeper Tim Krul. This level of consistency has upped his pay-grade and transformed him from more than a nice story about a moderately successful American field player in the world’s finest soccer league to a relatively young (27 folks) and budding star. When we dare to dream, or when we simply watch performances like the Wigan match or even the Newcastle match a couple weeks later, we think he may be the first true star American field player in a highly competitive foreign league.
Normally, that would all be wonderful and it would be enough. Yet there’s one more thing Dempsey’s roaringly successful campaign abroad is doing. It’s ratcheting up the already intense, and at times unfair, American obsession with why we don’t see this Clint Dempsey in an American shirt, and the attendant question of when, or if, if you believe we don’t see this Dempsey in an American shirt, we ever will. It’s a question that’s been asked before, and analyzed, and speculatively answered, but it’s never been as pertinent as it is today, with Dempsey playing at such an elite level for club. What follows is an attempt to deal with that question fairly at a moment when it is at its most timely.
To me, a fair analysis demands that I don’t attempt to deal with it alone. Too often the “Dempsey problem”, for lack of a better phrase, has been dealt with in opinion column after opinion column and while it has been tackled by some very talented writers, including Jen Chang and Jeffrey Carlisle, it has not, so far as I know, been addressed with several writers attempting to reach a consensus. So our analysis will include a trifecta of opinions, not just this writer.
Additionally, a fair analysis of this question requires a treatment that is more three questions than one. First, is it a fair criticism? Is Clint Dempsey a different player for the United States than he is for his club? Perhaps we were simply spoiled by a 23 year old Deuce in Germany 2006, one who scored against Ghana and, in the words of Matthew Tomaszewicz at The Shin Guardian, attacked the eventual World Champion “Italian iron curtain defense at will and with reckless abandon.” Perhaps we can write some of the less remarkable performances off with the argument that Dempsey has had other glorious moments—such as his goals in the 2009 Confederations Cup, or his (mostly) set-piece goals in the 2010 qualifying campaign. The answer very well be may an in-between type of response, and a fair analysis requires we seek it out. As such, “is there a difference” is our first question.
I’m one of the largest Dempsey fans living and breathing, and as a fan I seek his games out and watch him constantly, even at times when his side’s matches coincide with my side Everton’s fixtures. This is the argument for and the beauty of TIVO and cable soccer packages. To me, the most marked difference is consistency and the relentless nature of Craven Cottage Clint’s effort. To be sure, Dempsey has had his goals for the Yanks, and he’s had some sterling performances. But there’s a level of invisibility that creeps in for mammoth swaths of national team games that can’t be overlooked. The brilliant moments account for a small percentage of the time Dempsey spends on the pitch for the USMNT (third most in the qualifying cycle for field players, behind Landon Donovan and MB 90, respectively), and too often one wonders where Clint Dempsey is and why he isn’t impacting a game in the way he does, say, when Fulham is battling to a nil-nil draw with Newcastle. The Pepsi challenge on this issue is a look at various USMNT losses or ties: Can a reader find me a game the Yanks lost or tied where Dempsey was a genuine difference-maker. I can think of one and bonus credit to the reader who correctly identifies that match. Beyond that, those moments are few and far between.
Matthew Tomaszewicz, who is the Editor of the marvelous Shin Guardian, which after my site’s nomination snub receives my full support for United States Best Soccer Blog of 2010, also sees a different Deuce. “There is no question that there is a difference between club Dempsey and national Dempsey,” Tomaszewicz said. “At the crux of it are a difference in philosophy from Clint and Bob Bradley. If you read about Bob Bradley as a player, he was yeoman-like striker who consistently outworked, outhustled, and outmuscled the opposition. His accomplishments a result of perspiration, not inspiration. If you listen to Clint, he aspired to play “South American” style football growing up, possession-oriented and–a cliché but true–beautiful football. One only needs to look at the US style to see it is not one that Clint is “perfectly” suited for.” A difference in mentality, then, could contribute to the distinction between Craven Cottage Clint and country Clint. This matters a great deal, because a coach and a player on the same page are critical to success. When not “together”, there can be a residual development of frustration, one that festers and produces some rather frightening moments, say like the Americans dreadful qualifying performance at Costa Rica, where at least one blog noted that Dempsey’s body language looked defeated at best and disinterested at worst, a “Riquelme for Argentina” look if you will that must be concerning to any fan of the Stars and Stripes. This is not the responsible, relentlessly working, passionate Fulham Clint who, in the words of that writer, “breaks John Terry’s jaw and ruin’s Micah Richards’ career.”
Yet this isn’t always the Dempsey that shows up in a national team shirt. The lasting image of the 2009 Confederations Cup, to me, is Clint Dempsey in tears receiving the Bronze Boot as the tournament’s third best player. I wrote that day that there it was no longer acceptable to question Dempsey’s passion for playing for country, and I still believe that to be the case. I accept, however, that he is human, and any player who is increasingly frustrated may have a breaking point. In fact, perhaps the Costa Rica frustration and body language were the opposite end of Dempsey’s passion, a helplessness and anger that he alone couldn’t change the day.
Eric Beard, the editor of the outstanding site A Football Report, falls somewhere on this side of the “Dempsey problem.” H e thinks Dempsey receives more attention from opponents when he puts on the Red White and Swoosh, and this compounds what may be frustration with the offensive system.
“Clint Dempsey’s approach to the game doesn’t change from club to country, but rather an opponent’s of Clint may change if he’s representing the Stars & Stripes,” Beard said. “Clint Dempsey is US Soccer’s superstar, right behind Landon of course, but the way the world of football works prevents him from being that same superstar with Fulham. No discredit to Fulham, one of my favorite Premiership clubs, but the structure of the league means that if you’re not on a squad competing in Europe then you’re not really a superstar. Clint falls into the unappreciated category of players that includes the Mikel Artetas and Tuncays of the world. They’re world class, but they’re rarely recognized adequately. This permeates into the Prem, where opponents may respect Clint, but may not fear him. This is to Clint’s advantage though, as you can see he takes advantage of the lack of recognition and not being brutally man-marked like he often is with the US MNT. Clint’s low profile in the Prem allows him to play to his potential whereas with the NT he is more often than not handicapped because the other managers target him.”
This is likely even more accurate in the context of CONCACAF qualifying, where the dangers of Clint Dempsey are even more pronounced and a point-of-emphasis for all opponents is not letting the most creative American playmaker beat you. It’s pretty easy to see how this could frustrate anyone, especially a great player who wears his heart on his sleeve, and there’s likely a kernel of truth to the notion that this is a source of Dempsey’s frustration. Still, great players face defensive pressure and game planning constantly, and sooner or later, Americans expect Dempsey to continually produce (like Landon Donovan has finally done), or at least not be rendered invisible from time to time.
These observations lead us to conclusion number one—there is at least a slight difference between Dempsey at club and Dempsey for country—and in our second piece of this two part feature, we’ll seek out further explanation as to the reason for that difference, beginning with question two of our analysis:
“How much of Dempsey’s sterling play and ability to find the net at Fulham is personnel related or related to the way he has been deployed by Roy Hodgson and now Mark Hughes? Is it worth Bob Bradley’s time to try to mimic these deployments, or is Bradley forced to use Dempsey much as he does because the Yanks don’t have the personnel Duece needs to excel?”
Until then, travel safely, and enjoy your evening with family. And congratulations to Clint and his wife Bethany on the birth of their second child, a beautiful baby boy.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt. He would like to especially thank Matthew Tomaszewicz from THE SHIN GUARDIAN and Eric Beard of A FOOTBALL REPORT for their wonderful and invaluable contributions to this piece.