For Club And Country: The Curious Case of Clint Dempsey: Part Two

It’s Pearl Harbor Day, a day that will live in infamy of course and a day that changed the lives of many young men a bit younger than I sixty-nine years ago. Like so many young American men, my late grandfather enlisted as an officer’s candidate at Georgia State University in Atlanta hours after the attacks hit the newsreels and the war and Army Air Corps took him to the Pacific for the next three years of his young life, where he battled to preserve freedom and a distinct way of life in the face of all manner of horrors and things that would remain mostly unspeakable for the remainder of his life. He never traveled much after leaving the military, making it to England and Scotland, the land of his ancestors, for a month or two after he retired in 1989, but that was about all. Even though my grandfather never said so out loud, my father was probably correct that his Dad had done enough traveling during the war. He had flown in enough planes and seen enough things and all he really wanted was a quiet piece of land in Central Florida and time with his grandchildren and wife. A life-long desire for peace, family, and the quiet honor and certain dignity that accompanies going to work, providing for loved ones and carving out a name for oneself. Like many of the greatest generation of Americans who came back from what we can only hope is the last Great War, he did make a name for himself too, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in Miami helping integrate the schools for immigrant Colombians and Cubans and assuring the City provided these folks with some simple luxuries, like parks to play football, baseball and soccer in and better transportation services so father’s could make it home quicker from a hard day’s work to see soccer games and dance recitals. Those small conveniences and pleasures so interweaved with the dignity of day-to-day life were the things he fought for, I’d like to think, and perhaps this is why they were a point of emphasis.

It helps to remember my grandfather, and so many of the men who went to war with him, on Pearl Harbor Day and I wish I remembered to do that a bit more when occasion doesn’t demand it but a small incident that generates anger or disappointment perhaps requires the memory a bit more. In that way, I find my initial anger and shock at the American loss of the World Cup to the wholly undeserving bid of Qatar far easier to bear. There is sadness, to be sure, but it helps to remember how small a slight it was in the grand scheme of things, and how a Thanksgiving Weekend Sunday drive up to Kennesaw to see the USMNT U-20’s play, for example, is a simple convenience and a lasting memory that I’ll savor, in the end, much longer than I would have cherished the selection of the US in 2022. Who knows? Maybe some of those boys playing near my late grandfather’s hometown will be on the field in Qatar in twelve years. Perhaps one of them will even wear the captain’s armband. And my story of how I saw them play Mexico twelve years prior will be all the greater.

A day before my trip to Kennesaw to see the young Yanks tie Mexico 1-1, another American giving those of us back home delight in the little things in life shined again an ocean away. Clint Dempsey, Fulham’s dynamic midfielder, powered his way through a host of defenders to get his head on a contested ball in the six and slide it into the back of the net. In so doing, he rescued his side from possible home defeat and helped secure a crucial point for a Cottagers side that shouldn’t feel threatened by relegation but must every time it peers its head backwards slightly at the table. The goal was Dempsey’s sixth Premier League goal of the season, and capped off a performance given anywhere from a 7-8 in post-match player ratings. A week later, at the Emirates in London, he made another large impact, helping Fulham level with this brilliant ball through the Arsenal defense to Diomansy Kamara, who finished superbly. Though the Cottagers fell 2-1 on the day, Dempsey was again lavished with praise in match player ratings, consistently ranked Fulham’s finest player on the pitch.

Clint Dempsey to Liverpool ? I doubt El Nino would mind too much.

As if two weekends in a row of continuing brilliant form weren’t enough for Clint Dempsey, he surfaced yesterday in January transfer rumors as a top-level target of Liverpool, where his former manager at Craven Cottage, Roy Hodgson, is hoping to add teeth to a rather pedestrian-thus-far Liverpool attack. The Reds have been resurgent of late after a horrific start to the 2010-11 campaign and Hodgson doubtlessly believes Clint Dempsey can help make a late push for European football distinctly possible. While one should be wary of these sorts of transfer rumors, the one common unassailable truth to any December or July rumor is you play you’re way into them—that is to say—you’re only mentioned if your performance on the pitch warrants a discussion of how you could make a club typically better than the one you play for a more dangerous side. Dempsey has clearly done that this year, and it is worth keeping an eye on the progression of these rumors as the window draws closer.

This recent wave of on-field excellence and transfer window speculation only draws attention more loudly to the question posed two weeks ago in the first portion of this piece—where is the Liverpool target/emerging EPL star when he dons the American shirt? In that piece, we assembled a panel of soccer writers to address the initial question of whether Clint Dempsey is a different player for club than he is for country and we came back with a definitive “yes” as a response. The gap in class isn’t significant, but it is noticeable. The level of effort and passion, we argued, aren’t different at all and it bears repeating that the Clint Dempsey we saw crying after the 2009 Confederations Cup Final certainly cares deeply when he suits up for country—that passion, however, doesn’t always produce equitable results. This piece, again using the help of other soccer writers, rather than the simple opinion of one writer, attempts to address the question of “Why?”, subsequently asks whether or not, after Dempsey’s performance in the 2010 World Cup, the gap is closing.

There are many possible ways to address the question of why Dempsey’s club performances outpace his efforts for country, including fatigue from the club season often impacting the timing of his USMNT call-ups and the obvious fact that Dempsey is one of the Americans most-gifted players, if not its best player, a moniker opposing teams are all too aware of and as such hell-bent to keep in check. The problem, our panel believes, is that those two arguments are a bit too general.

First, fatigue affects most the European-based American regulars. In fact, even with a busy Europa schedule and the demands of the EPL, you’d be hard-pressed to prove a player like Landon Donovan or Stuart Holden wasn’t more qualified to play the “fatigue as excuse” card after long MLS seasons carried over to EPL loans and EPL club trials, respectively. Dempsey is one of a handful of USMNT regulars who is also a club mainstay, to be sure, but that alone isn’t all of the issue. Second, the focus of opposing defenses argument certainly eliminates Holden, but it’s at least reasonable to suggest that Landon Donovan is the player opponents would least likely want to beat them, if you forced them to make a choice. So there must be something else. What is it? Is it tactical deployments, differences in the way Dempsey is utilized by US gaffer Bob Bradley and his managers at Fulham, most recently Mark Hughes and Roy Hodgson? Is it personnel related? Is Duece surrounded by a better cast at Fulham and as such better-situated to excel than he is with the USMNT?

We asked our panel of writers to chime in, posing the following question: “How much of Dempsey’s 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 at least cater his attack around the skills of Dempsey? Is Bradley forced to use Dempsey the way he does because of personnel deficiencies that prevent making him the focal point of the US attack?”

Matthew Tomaszewicz, proud new father above all and editor of The Shin Guardian, dismissed the personnel completely, noting that it is not the “personnel around Deuce that leads to success at the club level and inconsistency at the national level.” He thought it was somewhere closer to the deployment portion of my inquiry, especially of late with manager Mark Hughes. “In Mark Hughes system precisely, Dempsey is deployed very forward and charged (his emphasis) with pushing into attack. He has defensive responsibilities, but they are not foremost,” he said.

A Football Report Editor-In-Chief Eric Beard agrees that the attack-minded deployment of Dempsey in the EPL is part of the genesis of club and country difference. In fact, he traces the issue further, noting that the move from New England to the EPL itself forced a change in Dempsey’s mindset. “Clint was forced to change his role on the pitch when he arrived at Fulham under Chris Coleman and then soon enough Lawrie Sanchez”, he noted. “He never really played winger with the Revs, usually opting for the attacking midfielder role Steve Nicol allowed him to play. However, the rigidity of the 4-4-2 used so often in the Premier League doesn’t allow for an attacking midfielder, though there are a few exceptions, notably Van Der Vaart and Lampard,” Beard said. This position change made a transition difficult but English managers finally determined that bumping Dempsey forward and mandating he attack would suit his game, and as such benefit his side, the most. We’re now starting to see that pay immense dividends.

“I’ve always compared Clint to Steven Gerrard, a player who also had to play on the flanks under Rafa Benitez because of the presence of Xabi Alonso, despite it being a foreign position to the Liverpool legend. Clint is too attack-minded to play center mid, but too technical to be counted off as a target man striker,” Beard said. As such, a hybrid role that slowly became an attack-first role was the logical progression to get the most out of Dempsey.

Allowing a player to be centrally focused on getting forward and attacking has its risks however, and those aren’t something the USMNT under Bob Bradley has been willing to take very often. Bradley is not going to sacrifice defensive for experimental tactics, and in competitive matches, this rigid determination to defend-first has been redeemed by results. Yanks fans might not want to hear about it, but the most notable tactical experiment in a competitive match resulted in disaster. Bradley chose to play a 4-3-3 at the Saprissa in qualifying and his side was subsequently pummeled by Costa Rica in a game that featured one of Dempsey’s worst performances in an American shirt.

Beard, for one, thinks the manager remembers this very well and it is partly why Bradley uses Deuce in a utility role rather than as a focal point of American attack. “Maybe it’s a lack of European pedigree, but Bob Bradley plays with an inherently negative mindset,” Beard notes. “Instead of highlighting the strengths of the team, Bob tries to limit the weaknesses.” In Bradley’s mind, this requires a defensive-mentality.

Tomaszewicz agrees to an extent, but thinks it is a little less about limiting weaknesses, which suggests a personnel deficiency, and more about a philosophy of how to play winning football. “In Bob Bradley’s system, attention to defense is the very first value,” he notes. “To use a crossover, a good point guard knows that the more he feeds a player on offense the more that player will also play defense. This adage seems to be lost in Bob Bradley’s system.” This creates an inherent tactical problem for generating the optimal level of performance from Dempsey. As Tomaszewicz suggests, “Clint is a player that likes and respects possession and attack. He needs it to survive, to thrive. He needs a point guard keeping him involved. Too often Bob Bradley’s game plan—not necessarily Clint’s deployment—doesn’t focus on maintaining the ball in attack.”

What does this suggest? Should Dempsey become a focal point, if not the central focus of the American attack? Likely this would require changing Landon Donovan’s role somewhat, although despite his South Africa successes there are at least a few writers who think Donovan as a support striker is a better deployment for him as well. That’s a different article, and one I won’t likely write. Blaming Bob Bradley is fun armchair sport for a great deal of American soccer fans, but here is one area where the criticism can be less blanket-variety vitriol and more constructive. Perhaps it is time for a re-think.

Dempsey's Brightest US Moments Have Come when he remains true to his relentless, attack-minded style of football.

In the opening of this two-part piece, I brought up the World Cup opener in Rustenburg. For the sake of avoiding argument, let me concede with emphasis that Robert Green’s goalkeeping was a terrible howler, an error of historic proportions certain to be run on video stream prior to every English World Cup Finals opening match long after I am dead and gone. That said, isn’t it a testament to Dempsey’s attacking mindset that Green was even in that position in the first place? On the other rare attacking American forays in the first half hour of the match, the Americans played nervously and cautiously, passing often and passing up long-distance shots that, especially with a new and wildly unpredictable ball,  would test a keeper who at best was a controversial selection to start. A replay shows Dempsey had a couple of options on the play to do the same, including slotting the ball back to Donovan or trying to thread a ball to Altidore. He chose instead to speculate, and directed a reasonably well-struck shot at Green. This was exactly the type of attack-minded resolve by Deuce that resulted in the put-the-game-away schooling of Puyol in the 2009 Confederations Cup—a simple case of an American player choosing to relentlessly press the issue. Because he did, the gateway to history was opened for the Americans. Tim Howard saved the Americans skins and Robert Green subsequently denied the Yanks three points in the second half with a miraculous save on Jozy Altidore—but the damage was done. The Americans had the point they needed and long before “Go Go USA” the stage was set for the Americans to win the group.

Speaking of the Algeria match and “Goal, Goal, USA”, let’s not forget that had Dempsey not been improperly waived offside earlier in the match, the drama of Darke’s call and John Harkes’ inability to utilize the English language (nothing new, most would argue, only a question of degree) would have been rendered unnecessary. This begs the final question as to whether or not South Africa 2010 marked the turning of a corner for Clint Dempsey in an American shirt. Has he finally figured out how to function in Bob Bradley’s system and was his immense World Cup performance a sign of excellence to come?

My lasting memory beyond Ian Darke of South Africa will be Clint Dempsey against Ghana, heroically battling away, blood-stained jersey and open cut on his face alla Brian McBride, determined not to go home quite yet. It wasn’t just the penalty he drew or the photographs of his blood, sweat and tears either. It was the fact that inarguably, Dempsey was the best player on the field for either side on that day, with all due respect to Boateng and Gyan. My player ratings after the heartbreaking defeat, and commentary that accompanied it, let you know how I feel, and echo the conclusion of other writers such as Jeff Carlisle that Dempsey was arguably the finest American performer at the tournament.

Eric Beard agrees with that assessment, noting that it would have to be Donovan, Dempsey or MB 90, and as such, the World Cup provides hope against a wave of cynics. In fact, he argues that the Bronze Ball at the Confederations Cup suggests the beginning of an upward trend. “I distinctly remember during the Confederations Cup John Harkes tearing apart Clint Dempsey’s work rate throughout the tournament, until the Egypt match came around and he had to bite his tongue. I actually wrote a scathing email to ESPN on why John Harkes should never be able to be paid for his perspectives again. If you look at those (somewhat legitimate) Castrol Rankings, you’ll see that Clint, along with Landon and Michael Bradley, covered more ground than any other player in the tournament. The same was true in South Africa this past summer,” he said.

We can’t be certain yet, though. For every Ghana performance, there are still too many Dempsey performances like the ones that plagued him throughout qualifying. This might be something we deal with forever, notes Tomaszewicz. “I think Clint is always a player that’s going to drift in-and-out of games.” That said, perhaps a change in tactics or a commitment to getting Dempsey involved is the solution. That’s certainly been the case at Fulham this year. “The more you involve Clint, the better he’ll be. A stat I love to point out is that— prior to this current campaign—85% of Dempsey’s club goals in the Premiership came in the first 20 minutes or final 20 minutes of the match,” Tomaszewicz said. The difference now isn’t just Deuce’s hard work and determination finally making him a more consistent player, though that is part of it. The difference is a commitment to making him a focal point of attack, a commitment to cycling play through him whenever possible.

“I think what you’re seeing with Fulham and Hughes this year is a system that more specifically caters to Deuce’s strengths. With the States, that’s not necessarily the case and thus Deuce can’t have the same impact on a continual basis,” Tomaszewicz added. “Should the States change their strategy, under Bob Bradley, or another coach, you might see a Dempsey closer to his club form.”

Neil W. Blackmon is Associate Editor and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt. He would like to thank especially Fulham FC, The Shin Guardian and A Football Report for their contributions to these pieces.

Filed Under: December 2010

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