Wearing the captain’s armband for just the second time – the first was in the second half of a game in 2010 against Colombia – Dempsey, 30, strapped his nation’s hopes onto his back and delivered them a victory when they needed it most.
Entering this week’s World Cup qualifying matchup against Costa Rica, all the talk concerned an explosive Sporting News article that contained anonymous quotes from 11 players critical of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as coach of the national team, as well as the German-American contingent on the squad. That led to endless questions and calls for those critical of things to have the “balls to say things in front of the team," as Michael Bradley told the Washington Post ahead of the match.
As if that wasn’t enough, the squad was severely depleted due to the absences of key players like Tim Howard (injury), Steve Cherundolo (injury), and all-time leading goalscorer Landon Donovan (on sabbatical from soccer and unavailable for duty).
Despite the controversy and injuries, Dempsey rose above it all, making it his mission as captain to lead by example.
From the opening whistle of the blizzard-impacted match, the forward from Nacogdoches, Texas, and gave the team a much needed jolt of energy. He pushed his team and created opportunities, including a 13th-minute passing sequence that just missed the feet of Herculez Gomez and a 14th minute shot that sailed wide of the post.
But just minutes later, a deflected Jozy Altidore shot found Dempsey wide open in front of net to give USA the eventual 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
"If I had missed that one, I would have been crying all night," Dempsey said of the goal, his 12th tally in World Cup qualifying – which equals Donovan’s all-time leading mark.
"He’s ready for this role," head coach Klinsmann said after the game. "He’s ready to step it up as a real leader for this team. He’s got 93 caps, right? It’s about time he became captain, too."
And Dempsey did step up. He continued showing his worth after the goal – playing tirelessly in the snowy conditions for the full 90 minutes en-route to victory.
"I’ve been fortunate that Jürgen has believed in me and kept me in games, especially earlier in the qualifying when we had the Jamaica game away and I wasn’t playing much with the situation that was going on at Fulham. For him to have that confidence in me and put me in the game even though I wasn’t playing many games, it gives me confidence as a player,” Dempsey said.
"I was just happy I was able to pay him back by stepping up and scoring goals."
This is an unusual performance for the United States. Sure, there have been some moments of glory in its 100 year history (Donovan’s iconic last-gasp winner against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, and of course, beating England in the 1950 World Cup) – but more often than not, when the team’s back is up against the wall they have not been able to respond.
Remember 1998 – when after hosting the World Cup and getting the nation excited in the sport – the team finished dead last, including an embarrassing loss to Iran? Or the back-to-back drubbings by Mexico in the Gold Cup in 2009 (5-0) and 2011 (a more respectable 4-2, unless you consider the US was up 2-0 early).
And more recently, when the US was expected to easily be one of two North American U-23 teams to qualify for the London Olympics – but failed (a tournament, that by the way, was won by Mexico).
Dempsey helped to change that pattern, at least for the time being.
The USA had its back up against the wall against Costa Rica. They played embarrassingly poorly against Honduras in the first of 10 games in the Hex and although it was early, sat last in the group.
But thanks to the Dempsey-led effort in Colorado, Team USA is up to second. The top three at the end of the grueling schedule earn a ticket to Brazil 2014, with the fourth left to battle with New Zealand for a spot.
The result certainly doesn’t change everything. The U.S. still has to face rivals Mexico in the famed Azteca stadium on Tuesday night – a tall task for the Americans, who have never won a meaningful game there. And of course, there’s still the little situation concerning the criticism leveled earlier in the week – though players insist it has been discussed, there’s bound to be a lingering effect.
But for now, the USA know that when they need a hero to step forward, Dempsey can, and will.