Clint Dempsey says he wants to stick with his 'lucky number' 8 for the World Cup. (Simon Bruty/SI)
SAN FRANCISCO — What if the U.S. named a World Cup team and none of the star players wanted to wear the famous No. 10 jersey?
That’s the strange situation the U.S. finds itself in ahead of Tuesday’s pre-World Cup friendly here against Azerbaijan (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision Deportes). The U.S. has to issue uniform numbers from 1 to 23 for the World Cup, so one player on the 23-man roster has to take No. 10. That number was worn by Landon Donovan at the last World Cup, and now Donovan has surprisingly been cut from the U.S. squad.
Yet here’s the thing: Not one of the U.S.’s 23 World Cup players wears No. 10 at club level, and starting Tuesday someone will have to don the digits representing an honor—and, potentially, a burden.
After all, the No. 10 shirt historically carries the most meaning of any number in soccer. Pelé wore it. Diego Maradona wore it. Zinédine Zidane, Michel Platini and Ronaldinho wore it. Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney wear it today.
Traditionally, the “No. 10 role” has usually meant you were the playmaker, the hub in the central midfield, the attacking fulcrum around which a team’s offense was generated. In recent years, the No. 10 role has dissipated in the sport—Argentina’s Juan Román Riquelme may have been the last true great one—and the number has often come to represent a team’s most dangerous attacking threat.
But with the decline of the “No. 10 role,” the jersey number No. 10 has also started seeing harder times. The reigning Ballon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, wears No. 7. At the last World Cup, there were uninspiring No. 10s such as France’s Sidney Govou, Nigeria’s Brown Ideye and Paraguay’s Edgar Benítez.
At South Africa 2010, moreover, only nine of the 32 players who wore No. 10 could have been considered the best attacking threat on their team: Argentina’s Messi, England’s Rooney, Brazil’s Kaká, the U.S.’s Donovan, Uruguay’s Diego Forlán, the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder, Slovenia’s Valter Birsa, South Korea’s Park Chu-Young and South Africa’s Steven Pienaar.
With Donovan gone for 2014, the most obvious choice to wear No. 10 for the U.S. would be captain Clint Dempsey. But Dempsey wears No. 8 for the U.S. and No. 2 for his club, Seattle. As Dempsey explained on Monday, he had a chance to choose No. 10 or No. 2 when he first joined the New England Revolution in 2004, but he opted for No. 2 because there was a curse associated with New England players who’d worn the No. 10.
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(He’s not kidding. The list of players who wore the No. 10 for the Revs before Dempsey included the late Catê and the not-so-illustrious Beto Naveda, Edwin Gorter, Mario Gori, Mauricio Ramos, Alex Pineda-Chacón and Jorge Vázquez.)
“The very first number I had as a kid was No. 2,” Dempsey began as a way of explaining. “And then as I got older my older brother wore No. 11, and I wanted to be like him, so in high school I wore No. 11 and for club ball. Then when I went to college, 11 wasn’t available and the only number really was No. 2. Then I realized my mom told me when I was young the very first jersey I had was No. 2. So when I went to the Revs I had a chance to go with 10 or 2 and went with 2 again because supposedly 10 was unlucky for payers with the Revs that wore the number 10.”
Got that? There’s more.
“So No. 2 has done me well,” Dempsey continued. “Then when I went to Fulham I couldn’t get No. 2, Moritz Volz had it. So I went with the only other number that was kind of available that similar, and that was 23. I’ve always had a connection with the No. 2 [at club level] for some reason. But when I was with the national team I wanted to go with No. 2, but Frankie Hejduk had it and seniority rules, so he got to keep wearing that and I wore No. 8. Since I scored a goal in the World Cup in 2006 with No. 8, I’ve kind of stuck with that. That’s been my lucky number for the U.S. team.”
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Translation: They’d have to force me to take No. 10 now.
Before you laugh at all this No. 10 discussion, remember: Uniform numbers are a huge thing for players. No fewer than five U.S. World Cup players include their club numbers in their Twitter handles: Brad Davis (11), Omar González (4), John Brooks (25), Alejandro Bedoya (17, although he wears 19 at Nantes) and Aron Jóhannsson (20).
Michael Bradley is the U.S.’s most indispensable central midfielder, even though he doesn’t play a traditional “No. 10 role.” But don’t look for him to take the vacant U.S. No. 10 jersey either. As he explained on Monday, Bradley wears No. 4 at the club and national team levels for a reason.
“No. 4 has always been my favorite number,” said Bradley, adding that some of his favorite players while growing up—Italy’s Demetrio Albertini and England’s Steven Gerrard—wore No. 4 with their national teams or club teams or both.
A team spokesman said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would make the choice of which player gets the No. 10, and an announcement will come on Tuesday. “My press officer told me we want to keep that quiet still for another day,” Klinsmann said on Monday.
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There aren’t a lot of good candidates, to be honest. Giving the No. 10 shirt to 18-year-old Julian Green would seem like a bad idea, considering Green’s inexperience and the feeling he has yet to earn the number. Graham Zusi would be a possibility: He appears likely to start in an attacking role in Brazil, even if his right-flank position is nothing close to the old No. 10 role. Maybe Klinsmann will give the No. 10 to Mix Diskerud, an attacking central midfielder whose personality may be quirky enough to handle it.
[UPDATE 9:45 a.m.: Diskerud will indeed take on the No. 10 shirt according to a team source. It won't be the first time: He wore No. 10 vs. Austria in a Nov. 2013 friendly.]
Then again, this won’t be the first time the prized No. 10 U.S. World Cup jersey has been handed out in a slightly capricious way. On Monday, I spoke to U.S. assistant coach Tab Ramos, who wore the No. 10 for the U.S. at the 1998 World Cup—but missed out on it in 1990 and ’94.
“I always wanted the No. 10,” Ramos explained, but in 1990 Peter Vermes got it because he was in national team camp earlier than Ramos (who was playing in Spain). “I was always traveling so much, [Vermes] had it before me,” Ramos said. “For ’94 it was kind of the same: Wegerle was here in the country [in the national team residency program] and I was playing away [still in Spain]. So when I got home he already had it. Then for ’98 it was like, ‘I’m taking it!’ So that’s how it was.”
On Tuesday, there won’t be any U.S. player demanding the No. 10 jersey. And that’s what makes it strange.
Previous U.S. No. 10 Jerseys at World Cup
2010 Landon Donovan
2006 Claudio Reyna
2002 Claudio Reyna
1998 Tab Ramos
1994 Roy Wegerle
1990 Peter Vermes
Here's what U.S. players wore last, for club and country:
Players, by country, who wore No. 10 in the 2010 WC
GALLERIES: USA's road to the World Cup | U.S. soccer fans through the years