In part, he has suffered from the constant comparison to Landon Donovan; up against the U.S.' wholesome, twinkle-eyed star, Dempsey's brooding demeanor makes him an unlikely poster boy. Donovan's injury-time goal against Algeria at last summer's World Cup is seared on to the nation's memory -- even people who aren't that interested in soccer could probably describe it to you. That it was Dempsey's run and shot that created the opportunity, leaving the box open and the goalkeeper on the floor, is merely a footnote. His strike against England is virtually credited to Robert Green, but the U.S. had only four shots on target in 95 minutes, and Dempsey made two of them. Maybe he didn't really believe he'd beat Green from there, but as Bruce Arena once put it: "He tries s--t."
Fulham has had a pretty unexceptional season in the Premier League -- better than last year, mind you, but without the distraction of a Europa League adventure. Early on in the campaign, the team only broke a run of draws by losing a couple. It is just very recently that the club's strike force has been at its full complement: Bobby Zamora broke a leg in September, Moussa Dembele's season has been disrupted by a recurring ankle injury, and Andrew Johnson's return from a long layoff has been tentative, to say the least. In their absence Dempsey, a midfielder not nearly so eulogized beside the Thames as Damien Duff, Simon Davies or Zoltan Gera have been, has scored a career-best 12 goals (nigh on a third of Fulham's total).
Without Dempsey's goals, Fulham would be 10 points worse off -- critical in any season, let alone one such as this. That he has attempted more shots than any other Fulham player tells you how well he has adapted to the demands placed upon him, though it has never really been his game to lead the line. He has outscored every member of the PFA Team of the Year midfield, and matched the player who has virtually defined goal-scoring midfield play this season, Tottenham's Rafael van der Vaart. Yet the fanfare has been minimal and in some cases even grudging -- spectators who have invested several seasons in the idea that Dempsey is not a game-changer are reluctant to change their tune now.
Of course Van der Vaart has made an instant impact on Spurs and the league for the relatively tiny outlay of £8 million ($13.3M), but for £1.5 million (about $4 million then), but Dempsey has more than proved his worth since arriving from New England Revolution in 2007. It was his neatly crafted goal that gave Fulham its relegation defying win over Liverpool at the end of the 2006-07 season. Though in years to come people may struggle to remember that he has scored decisive goals at the Reebok, Upton Park and Villa Park this term, few will forget the incredible chip that ended Juventus' European hopes at Craven Cottage just over a year ago.
One of the fantastic things about that strike is that he doesn't even look at the goal -- he drops back out of the area five or six seconds before taking the shot and at no point in between does he even glance toward the keeper. That's not just about trying things. As Dempsey's first against Bolton demonstrated, he has tremendous technique. He's as good with his head as he is with his feet, and can generate surprising power with minimal backlift.
Ask most Premier League watchers what his best asset is, and they'll probably say strength and stamina. Certainly he has those -- he's made 40 or more appearances for Fulham in each of his full seasons, and spent his summers representing the U.S. (at the 2007 Gold Cup, in World Cup qualifiers, at the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup finals) without flagging, and has quickly shrugged off injuries -- but that's a fairly humdrum assessment. It's not just that he'll hold off two defenders at a time, he can also find the mental space to pick the pass that plays in a teammate, as he did to set up Diomansy Kamara's goal against Tottenham in October. His sense of invention can be charmingly unselfish.
Before you say it, I'm not getting carried away. I'm not forgetting the games in which he has toiled to little effect, or that dreadful penalty against Chelsea in February. Perhaps 33 is not the most astonishing club record (Tim Cahill has 54 at Everton, for instance, and will have to add another seven to match Duncan Ferguson's tally).
Yet that says more about Fulham's struggle to sign and retain consistent goal scorers than it does about Dempsey, who, after just four years, is also the squad's longest serving member. It's a shame that he seems to be one of those players about whom we're much more willing to accept one bad moment as evidence of a more general mediocrity -- Dempsey has had to learn to take "above average" as a compliment -- than to take our cue from the flashes of brilliance he has repeatedly proven to be capable of.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.