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Clint Dempsey's burning ambitions

FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama.
FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.




Check out the best images from USA's World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica.

That a sudden shift had occurred became apparent on a scraggly practice field on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica. As the U.S. national soccer team filed off their bus, the clamor from the kids gripping the fence surrounding the stands was but for one man.

Dempsey! Dempsey! Dempsey!

For the first time in as long as memory will stretch back, Landon Donovan was not the name most closely associated with Team USA — if any player’s name was known at all. Sure, Donovan hadn’t made the team for the trio of June World Cup qualifiers, still rounding into form after a 4-month sabbatical as he was. But then most Jamaicans didn’t know that. Had Donovan been there, he’d have been overshadowed by Clint Dempsey all the same.

Fair enough. Dempsey has scored 11 goals in his last 15 games for the USA, passing Eric Wynalda for second place on the all-time scoring list with his recent brace against Germany, which brought him to 35. Until Friday’s 2-1 over Jamaica, he’d scored seven of the Americans’ 13 goals in World Cup qualifying and five of their seven goals in 2013.

Donovan has just four goals for the USA since the 2010 World Cup — the last three of which came in a 5-1 friendly rout of Scotland a year ago. And he’s not even with the team this week for their World Cup qualifiers.

All Clint Dempsey has ever wanted is more. He is a striver and a seeker, willing his way from a trailer park in Nacogdoches, Texas to English Premier League stardom.

Two of the more famous things ever said about him involve the same expletive. “He tries shit,” said then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena early in Dempsey’s international career, when asked what made the forward different. “He hasn’t done shit,” added current coach Jurgen Klinsmann more recently, when queried about his soon-to-be-captain’s achievements in the game.

Both are incontrovertibly true. He will try things. He’ll take risks, on the field and off. He’ll throw his body in harm’s way. He’ll run at opponents like only a handful of Americans ever have, he’ll take shots nobody else would dare trigger, and he’ll push himself far beyond where a rational professional from a total soccer backwater would have the audacity to.

Most all Americans would have happily settled for seeing out their career with a club like Fulham, a respectable Premier League outfit where Dempsey held the team’s EPL scoring record. But he motored on, relentless and insatiable. On to Tottenham Hotspur — inducing an ugly split from the club that brought him to Europe from the New England Revolution in 2004 last summer — which was awash in reputable and mobile attackers already, many of them younger than their new teammate. But Dempsey carved out a role for himself regardless.

So his coach’s assertion that he has yet to accomplish anything is patently untrue. He has had more of an impact on the professional game overseas than any other American field player. But Dempsey doesn’t look back. That’s not where the goal is, or where his goals are.

Klinsmann has since changed his tune. After the Germany game, he dumped more praise over Dempsey than he has with any other player in almost two years in charge. “Having a player like Clint Dempsey is just a privilege,” Klinsmann said in his press conference. “I think this is one of the best players probably in U.S. history, seeing him perform almost every game at a very, very high level. Right now Clint is right on top with the best players around and certainly the top player on the United States.”

It had been less than four months since he’d denounced Dempsey’s career thus far to the Wall Street Journal. Klinsmann knew what he was doing. A frightful fire roars within Dempsey. And his coach stoked it until it came bursting out of him, sending a pillar of black smoke into the skies.

“What we’re trying to do is to give [the USA players] messages in order to challenge them, in order to make them understand to take your own career in your own hands,” the German coach had explained earlier that week. “Make the next step for yourself, get to the next tier of club if you can. Try to play Champions League one day, go as high as you can.”

Dempsey left Fulham because Spurs were perennial contenders for a spot in the UEFA Champions League. And even if they didn’t make it this year, ending one point off the requisite fourth place, Dempsey established himself anew when many wondered if he’d finally, at 30, pushed himself too far.

“[Klinsmann] wants me to push myself and stay hungry,” Dempsey says. “But that’s something I’ve always done anyway. I’ve always been someone to challenge myself, since I came into [ Major League Soccer] to going to Fulham and then getting the move to Tottenham — I’ve always wanted to play at the highest level possible, always wanted to be the best player I could be and be around the best players.”

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Dempsey’s elbows rest on a round table as he talks to a handful of reporters in the banquet room of a hotel in Kingston. The left has the outline of Texas tattooed on it, with the Texan star placed on Nacogdoches. Further up his arms the names of his wife, children and older sister who passed away at 16 are stained into his skin, beside Bible verse. Behind is it is an image of Saint Michael fighting the devil, because Dempsey identifies with warriors.

He’d walked into the room the way he usually does, saying very little but taking everything in with his dark, saucer-sized eyes protruding below his equally dark, closely-cropped hair.

“I’ve always had to fight for everything I’ve gotten in my life, to try to make it in soccer,” he now says in his heavy voice with that trace of Texas twang. “From a young age, traveling three hours to Dallas and three hours back for games and training, you realize that you can’t just go out there and let it slip up because everybody’s sacrificing so much for you.”

“[The fire comes from] realizing it doesn’t take much to fall off, doesn’t take much for things to change quickly,” Dempsey says. “But on the flip-side, it doesn’t take much to get going good again. That’s what’s so beautiful about this game. One game and things can be better.

“You don’t really know when your peak is going to be or if you’ve passed it or if it’s still to come. All you can do is just continue. You have to prove yourself every year. You can’t just say, ‘I did it one year – that’s cool.’ You can easily fall to the wayside.”

If you’d declared that this USA team could ever be anybody’s but Donovan’s so long as the all-time scoring leader was still in the game a year or so ago, you and your opinions would have been cast with those of fools and know-nothings and provocateurs and liars.

But this is The Dempsey Show now. He is captain and commander. He gives no orders. He leads from the front. With the goals he scores and the gusto with which he pursues them. Opponents target him for harsher treatment. Because keeping Dempsey from roaming and distributing and trying… erm… things, is half the battle in keeping the USA at bay.

Dempsey! Dempsey! Dempsey!

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The game against Jamaica is over. Dempsey has fought and battled and taken risks and shots and knocks. He speaks to the media by the field where he just helped the USA to their first ever win over the Reggae Boyz in a World Cup qualifier on their own turf in a ferociously physical game. Locals plead for pictures. They’ll happily lie to American handlers just to get close.

As he walks out of the stadium, he is stopped a half dozen times. Jamaica isn’t even a soccer country. Track and cricket are what matters here. But they know who Dempsey is.

Little boys tug at him. He gives them all the time he can — a pat on the head, an arm around the shoulder, a few words. They want his t-shirt. But that would leave him half-naked. He smiles, poses for another picture. And then Clint Dempsey moves on. To whatever is next.

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