By Grant Wahl
May 24, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Clint Dempsey leans forward in his seat and tells a story. Back in his hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas, during his days in the second grade, an old, crusty gym teacher named Coach Long staged a kickball game one afternoon between the boys and the girls. Dempsey played hard, just like he always does, but then came an unexpected twist.

"Coach Long cheated and let the girls win," Dempsey says, "and I jumped up and tried to punch him."

There were consequences, of course: Dempsey said he "got pops" at both the principal's office and at home that night, and he missed an ice cream party. (Coach Long, who presumably wore those tight-fitting BIKE coaches' shorts, also retired after that school year. "Hopefully it wasn't because of me," Dempsey says.) But the point is clear: Deuce does not like to lose. Never has.

The same thing applies today. No matter how much Dempsey has achieved, no matter how much he has exceeded the expectations once put on him, he always sees the next challenge. Take his just-completed season with Fulham, the greatest ever by an American in Europe.

"It's a gift and a curse," Dempsey said. "I'm looking at players that are way above me. You look at [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the totals they have, and you compare yourself with them to drive and push you even further. Yeah, it's good what I've done. I tied for fourth [in Premier League goals] with [Emmanuel] Adebayor [with 17], but then you look at [Wayne] Rooney, [Robin] Van Persie and [Sergio] Agüero and how well they did, and you want to be among them. You're able to be happy about what you're doing, but you're like, 'Damn, I've still gotta go further.' Hopefully I can keep going and maybe get to that level."

Dempsey's unquenchable appetite for competition, for rising to the next level, is something that impresses even his teammates.

"He still has that crazy hunger to succeed, more so than most," an admiring Landon Donovan said Wednesday, indicating he found it hard to maintain that drive himself.

I mention Donovan's comments to Dempsey, ask him how he does it. Does he have any advice for Donovan?

"The thing is, Landon's played more games than me," Dempsey said. "He started playing at a higher level younger than what I did. I didn't turn pro until I was 20, and before my first MLS season started I turned 21. So it's almost been like a race against time for me, to make the most I can of the time I have left. I'm still hungrier than ever."

Dempsey isn't likely to play in the U.S. friendly with Scotland in Jacksonville on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, Galavisión). A strained groin kept him out of Fulham's Premier League finale, and he hadn't done anything more than a bit of running and ball work in training through Thursday.

"I don't know about the Scotland game," he said. "We're just trying to be smart. I've been out for 14 days. You've gotta work on fitness because you lose it really quick. It doesn't make sense to play in a game if you're not able to be close to 100 percent."

Taking the field against Brazil on Wednesday is a more likely scenario. You want to challenge yourself against the best, and the five-time World Cup champions will bring some big talent to the high-profile friendly.

Wanting to play against the best may well guide Dempsey's club future, too. He hasn't said so explicitly, but it seems increasingly unlikely that Dempsey will sign the new contract being offered him by Fulham. One season remains on his contract, and he could well be a transfer target this summer for a Champions League team.

"They've offered a contract, and I just wanted to focus on my football and finish off the season strongly," Dempsey said. "I've always said I'm grateful for everything Fulham has done for me. Some of the best memories I have in soccer have been there. But the fact remains that I want to play in Champions League. I want to play at the highest level possible.

"I want to do as much as I can in my career and look back and say I made the most of all the opportunities I've had. I'm always going to want to play in Champions League. It's something I've never done. I'd like to test myself at that level. That way I can look back and say, 'Hey, I gave it a go. Either I was good enough or I wasn't good enough.'

"If I wanted to be comfortable, no offense to MLS, but I would've stayed in MLS, 'cause I would have been closer to my family and friends, and I would have been used to the way of life. I'm a risk-taker. I want to throw myself in the deep end and see if I can swim."

Whenever Dempsey has tried it so far, the answer has been a resounding yes. There's only one deeper end of the pool to go to from here.

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