Everyone who wanted Clint Dempsey to be benched was wrong
SEATTLE -- For a while, it seemed like everyone was ready to write off Clint Dempsey. What a mistake that would've been.
After the United States men's national team 2-0 loss to Colombia to open their Copa America two weeks ago, some people suggested Dempsey shouldn't be a starter anymore. They said he didn't fit the system coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants for his USMNT: a fluid, possession-oriented style with attacking interchanges built around a lone striker.
Maybe Dempsey isn’t the ideal fit for that system, but that’s part of why it was the wrong system for the USMNT in the Colombia game. The Americans aren’t quite there yet when it comes to fluid, beautiful, proactive soccer and the current squad lacks the right personnel to make a 4-3-3 with a lone striker work. Sure, pushing Dempsey out may get them a bit closer to it, but not nearly close enough to justify giving up everything else he brings.
But when the team is built around Dempsey and his ability to partner with a second striker up top, Dempsey plays better and so does the team around him, as we've seen in the later matches of this Copa America. Dempsey is a constant attacking presence who can score all ways, whether it's on set pieces or in the run of play, in the air or on the ground, which is valuable on a team that still hasn't found its attacking identity. He also relishes in bearing the burden of changing games, even if it means making something out of nothing, a role no one else has stepped up to fill.
In other words, a USMNT without Dempsey -- as least for now -- isn’t the best USMNT.
Dempsey made sure everyone knew it on Thursday, when he scored a goal and assisted a second in a 2-1 win over Ecuador in the Copa America Centenario quarterfinal. Now, the USMNT is through to the semifinal and it is largely due to Dempsey.
With three goals in the team's past three games, including the game-winner against Paraguay, Dempsey has been arguably the most important player in the USMNT attack over this tournament. Four games into this Copa America, it appears that as Dempsey goes, so too the U.S. team goes.
It's true that at 33 years old, Dempsey is in the later stage of his career and he may not have the speed or stamina of his 20s. But he has also made up for it by staying deeper and letting players like Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes do the sprinting to stretch defenses. Dempsey acts more as the visionary who sees the plays develop and puts himself in the right spot.
Dempsey's 22nd-minute goal against Ecuador was a clear example of that. As Wood drew a couple of defenders into the corner, Dempsey put himself in front of goal in a gap of the defense. Wood laid it off to Jermaine Jones for a one-time lofted ball that Dempsey smashed into the net.
Dempsey played a key role in the second goal in the 65th minute, too. Going at goal, he fought off a defending Fernando Gaibor to get a foot on the ball to poke it back toward Zardes for a clear tap-in.
The critics and the doubters can keep talking. Dempsey will keep doing his thing.
"I'm not worried about that. I go out and perform," Dempsey told reporters after Thursday's win. "That's what I've always done for the U.S. team. Hopefully, there are more games left in me that I can keep getting goals and keeping getting assists and contributing in a positive way. I don't worry about the other stuff."
Of course, it's nothing new to hear fans and pundits writing Dempsey off, whether it's due to his age, aspirations for a different attacking style or the usual roster turnover teams go through.
During his six-season stint with Fulham in the Premier League, a constant theme over his career would be getting dropped from the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, only to prove to be too valuable to leave on the bench.
For the national team, Dempsey has been a stable presence, but he had been left off Klinsmann's roster for the team's first camp of this year. The choice, Dempsey said, was his. But after he had been left off the roster for World Cup qualifiers just a couple months earlier, fans and pundits were starting to picture a USMNT without Dempsey.
That was followed by a slow start with the Seattle Sounders this season, where he scored two goals in 10 games, and the talk around Dempsey was quickly changing. Last summer, fans and media alike were worried his infamous Open Cup suspension could affect his availability for the Gold Cup. But by the start of 2016, up for debate was the question of how big a role Dempsey would play with the USMNT going forward -- and whether he'd have much of a role at all.
Klinsmann has brought in younger players and seemed to be keen to find a replacement for Dempsey. But Klinsmann hasn't had any luck and Dempsey remains his best option. Klinsmann admitted earlier this week he hopes Dempsey can continue through the 2018 World Cup.
After Dempsey's decisive performance against Ecuador, it became that much more apparent why Klinsmann would like the 33-year-old to stick around.
"Clint is special and he showed that tonight. He showed that the last couple weeks, he showed that throughout his entire career," Klinsmann said after the Copa America quarterfinal match. "So when he was not there [in USMNT camp] a couple times, we wanted to bring some youngsters and give them a go, but he's right there where he should be. This performance tonight from him was unbelievable."
Dempsey now has 52 goals for the national team -- he is the second all-time scorer for the U.S. and now five goals away from matching Landon Donovan's record. If he continues on his current form, there's reason to believe he can reach it.
Maybe as he inches closer to the record, critics will stop writing him off.