Clint Dempsey gives a captain's effort in Costa Rica win
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- It just had to be Clint Dempsey.
After a driving snowstorm capped a week of controversy with chaos, it was a calm finish from the new captain that put the U.S. Men's National Team back on solid ground.
Dempsey's 16th-minute tap-in propelled the U.S. past Costa Rica in its CONCACAF World Cup qualifier Friday night, moving the Americans from last in the six-team, 10-game Hexagonal to second, one point behind leaders Honduras.
That's what Jürgen Klinsmann had in mind when he named Dempsey captain this week, banking on the forward's steady presence at a time when the U.S. needed it most.
"He's ready for this role," Klinsmann said. "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."
Dempsey's first start wearing the armband came at a tenuous moment for the team, which was badly in need of a win and facing both a rash of injuries and a media storm sparked by players speaking out anonymously against Klinsmann.
But all that seemed distant afterward, thanks in large part to Dempsey's strike in the 16th minute. After the Texan's shot from outside the box went wide, Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas misplayed the ensuing goal kick back to the U.S. Dempsey passed to forward Jozy Altidore, whose shot was blocked, but with the defense and Navas rushing toward the right side of the goal, Dempsey was left all alone in the middle and coolly slammed it home, giving most of the freezing crowd of 19,374 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park the release they braved the elements to see.
"If I had missed that one, I would have been crying all night," he said.
It was Dempsey's 12th career goal in World Cup qualifying, tying him with Landon Donovan for the all-time lead. And more important on this night, it was all the U.S. would need. Sound possession by the Americans and an ever-thickening layer of snow stifled Costa Rica's comeback bid.
Dempsey had other good moments as well. He was enough of a nuisance that Costa Rica defender Roy Miller brought him down in the box in the 42nd minute, an incident that Klinsmann called "a clear penalty." Dempsey was also responsible for a sharp volley that stood as one of the U.S.' few threatening sequences of the second half.
Perhaps most impressive was simply the fact that he played all 90 minutes. Dempsey missed almost a month of matches with English club Tottenham due to a calf injury and the birth of his third child. Since Feb. 21, he has played only 45 minutes for Spurs, and the layoff combined with blizzard-like conditions at altitude made staying on the field from start to finish a tall order.
At least, it would be for someone else.
"Clint is a warrior," forward Herculez Gomez said. "You're never going to tell him he can't do something or it's not in him, because that's not him. We all know that. It doesn't surprise any of us."
That's the type of effort that's expected of Dempsey, who also scored the lone goal in the U.S.' 2-1 loss to Honduras to open the Hexagonal on Feb. 6.
He called playing with the armband an honor and added that it might have lingered in the back of his mind to inspire extra effort. Leaving Denver for Tuesday's match at Mexico with three points in hand, his self-evaluation was simple: "It feels like I did my job."
Dempsey wasn't one to jump into the fray this week over his unnamed teammates' criticisms of Klinsmann, but he made his feelings toward the coach clear after the win.
Earlier this year, Klinsmann raised eyebrows by saying Dempsey "hasn't made s---" during his club career with Fulham, but he stuck with the forward by playing him all 90 minutes in World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica - even when Dempsey wasn't seeing playing time while arranging his transfer to Tottenham in September.
Then came this week's honor of the captaincy and another full match despite his recent injury.
"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," Dempsey said. "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.
"I was just happy I was able to pay him back by stepping up and scoring goals."