In what is becoming a historic season for U.S. soccer star Clint Dempsey, the Fulham midfielder had a chance to shock the English Premier League on Monday. During injury time of a scoreless game with Chelsea, Dempsey did what he does best, creating something out of nothing and drawing a penalty on defender David Luiz. Suddenly Dempsey found himself standing over a spot kick with the chance to steal a victory and, in the process, break Brian McBride's record for the most goals scored by an American (nine) in an English Premier League season.
Visibly gassed, Dempsey fired his penalty off a diving Petr Cech and was unable to convert an ambitious overhead kick on the rebound. Fulham came away with a tie, providing one more reason to think Chelsea (now 12 points behind Manchester United) won't repeat as champion this season.
"I was tired, but I wanted to take the penalty," Dempsey said on Tuesday. "I'd taken a penalty earlier this year and converted on that. I tried to go hard and low, and he guessed the right way. It's frustrating because you have the chance to be a hero against a top team, but we got a point, and I think [0-0] is a fair result. We're on a good run of form, and it shows how far we've come when we're disappointed with not winning."
Dempsey's Fulham has been on a roll of late, losing only once in its last nine games in all competitions. The Cottagers have risen to 12th place in the Premiership, where the race is so tight that Fulham is two points out of the table's top half but only four points clear of the relegation zone.
Dempsey, 27, says he's playing the best soccer of his career these days, and he has 11 games left to surpass McBride's goal mark for Yanks in a Premier League season. It seems like only a matter of time before Dempsey passes Roy Wegerle for all-time goals by an American in England. Dempsey has 34; Wegerle had 53.
Not that it has been easy for Dempsey since leaving the New England Revolution for Fulham in 2007.
"It's tough coming over here," Dempsey said. "You go from being a big fish in a small pond in America to playing against the big boys and having to prove yourself all over again. There's more competition, and you're under a lot more pressure week in and week out. It's great that I'm getting close to breaking records for Americans, but the main thing is being the best player I can be and seeing where that takes me."
Dempsey's success at Fulham is the story of perseverance. In four years he has had four different coaches. With each one of them Dempsey has had to work to earn a starting role after being on the bench.
"It's something that gets frustrating, but you try to find the positives in it," he said. "It makes you hungrier and forces you to be better to make sure you're out on the field. Because overseas it's difficult not playing. You do miss home. When you're playing everything's great, but when you're not playing it starts to weigh on you and you have to dig in deep."
While Dempsey says he's happy at Fulham, where his contract runs through the end of the 2012-13 season, he adds that he'd like to play in Champions League someday, a prospect that seems unlikely with Fulham. As for the U.S. national team, Dempsey is looking forward to friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay next month, but he says he's most focused on the Gold Cup in June. Not only does it provide the chance to win the trophy as the best national team in the region, but the victor will also qualify for the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley has been using a five-man midfield lately, a switch from the 4-4-2 that the U.S. used at the World Cup, but Dempsey says he feels comfortable in any number of positions on the national team.
"I haven't played much in [a five-man midfield]," he said. "But it depends on how things go in training and how it ends up looking. I could either play out wide or as a withdrawn forward or target forward or as an attacker from the central midfield. Those are the positions I've played at Fulham, and whatever Bob thinks is best for the team, I'll do my best in that formation."
Just don't expect Dempsey to post his thoughts on the U.S. formation (or anything else, for that matter) on Twitter. For now he says he's not planning on joining some of his teammates online.
"When I first came to England I had my own website, but I don't have it anymore," he said. "You try to write things on there, and the newspapers over here would take it and put it in the paper. You can get yourself into trouble with it with your club, and it's not really worth it. Look at the situation with Ryan Babel and the referee. Having a Twitter account is cool and you get to be close to your fans, but I try to stay away from the drama of it."
Besides, Dempsey is plenty busy with his wife, Bethany, raising their young children, Elyse and 11-week-old Jackson. The Dempseys named Jackson after Clint's grandfather A.D., whose friends called him Jack (after the boxer Jack Dempsey). Dempsey's grandfather died in 2010 on the day the U.S. fell to Ghana 2-1 in the World Cup Round of 16.
The offseasons in soccer are criminally short, but Dempsey plans on making the most of his short time together in the U.S. with his family in early July.
"I do the same thing every summer," he said. "I only get 21 days off, and I'll spend 10 days in Texas and 11 in North Carolina, where we have a lake house. I do a lot of fishing. I'll go out with my dad on the lake and [then] play some golf. When I was young we used to always go camping on lakes and go fishing. So anytime I'm home I try to get all my family around and be together. That's all we do. We don't go on any crazy vacations to any countries. We have the most fun in Texas and North Carolina."
At the rate he's going, Dempsey will have earned the time off -- and then some.
New England: Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, Matt Reis.
U.S.: Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride.
Fulham: Danny Murphy, Brede Hangeland, Moussa Dembélé.
Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Ricardo Carvalho.