Jurgen Klinsmann, left, has turned to Clint Dempsey as his captain to lead the USA in the World Cup. (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
STANFORD, Calif. -- Clint Dempsey is the second leading goal scorer in U.S. national team history. He’s one of only three Americans to score in two World Cup tournaments and was by far the leading marksman in qualifying for the 2014 edition.
There is no debate concerning his importance to the U.S. cause. And that’s why there was such concern over the winter. Dempsey’s transition from the English Premier League back to MLS hadn’t gone well. He scored just once after signing with the Seattle Sounders in early August and was plagued by calf and hamstring ailments as the club imploded in the fall.
Suddenly, in a World Cup year, the country’s most consistently reliable player had hit the skids. There was a decision to make, and like any genuine goal scorer, Dempsey, 31, didn’t hesitate. Rather than resting or spending January in camp with the national team, he returned to England for a two-month slog with struggling Fulham, his former club. It was tough, ambitious and therefore fitting for a man who plays as if desperate to wring everything possible out of a career he’s never taken for granted.
Dempsey failed to score in seven games for Fulham, but he benefitted in ways that didn’t appear in a box score.
“I wanted to go to an organization that I knew well. They have a really good physio team in terms of keeping players healthy and making sure that you’re prepared. I wanted to go somewhere I felt comfortable,” he said here at Stanford University, where the U.S. is preparing for this summer’s World Cup. “For me, it was trying to get my body right. I had some breakdowns. I think adjusting to playing on [artificial] turf, to travel, and for some reason I was breaking down. I needed to go over there and keep pushing and keep fighting, and I thought that was would be the best type of preparation for myself to start the season off on the right note.”
He’s started off the season to the tune of eight goals and three assists in nine games. The Sounders have the highest point total in MLS and Dempsey is the early leader in the MVP race.
Last summer, when talking about why he named Dempsey national team captain, Klinsmann said, “Is he highly talented? Does he have all the tools that you need to have to play at the highest level? Yes. But what is far more important, he has the drive. He has the hunger. He's not satisfied … He always looks for the next game. It is just in his own being, having that inner drive.”
Dempsey can be cool, which is part of his appeal, or even a bit laconic. It’s tough to imagine him giving the sort of impassioned, spontaneously eloquent locker room speech you see in movies. It’s easy, however, to see the wisdom behind Klinsmann’s choice and how Dempsey’s relentless pursuit of excellence rubs off on his teammates. Just ask fellow Sounder Brad Evans, who’s here in camp battling for a spot on the back line.
“You look at him and you train against him, first and foremost, and you know he’s at a different level,” Evans told reporters. “He carries himself like he really is at a different level. It’s hard to describe in words. Any time you’re the captain of the national team, you’re going to carry this – I don’t know what the right word is – but you walk into the locker room and everybody looks up to you.”
Evans said Dempsey’s return to form has changed the mood in Seattle and will pay dividends in Brazil.
“I think the offseason really helped, him having a bit of an offseason and being able to get super fit when he went back to England. And ever since day one he’s been happier and he’s carried himself differently and the guys have fed off that,” Evans said. “It’s the perfect timing. Guys have asked. They’ll text you. They’ll see the goals and they’ll see the way he’s playing. It’s just a different level right now.
"Even in training, it’s a cut above the rest. Massive, massive, because I think guys are going to lean on him during the World Cup. He’s going to have the team on his shoulders. And I think he’s old enough, he’s mature enough, he’s experienced enough to have that confidence and I know that he will. Any time I turn my head, I’m looking for advice from him. It’s a huge factor to add to this team, that’s for sure.”
Dempsey will be just the ninth man to captain the U.S. at a World Cup. He said Sunday that he hasn’t spoken to his predecessor, Carlos Bocanegra, specifically about the role. Rather, Dempsey appears quite comfortable with going about it in his own way. He’ll lead by example and remind his teammates that the World Cup represents an opportunity that can’t be wasted. He went the extra mile this winter, all the way to England, and so can they. Dempsey may be about to compete in his third World Cup, but it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten those three-hour rides to and from practice as a youth in Eastern Texas.
“Nothing in life is worth having if you don’t have to work for it,” he said.
“It’s an honor to be the captain and it’s a privilege and it’s just about working together with the team, everybody trying to get on the same page and try to do something special, accomplish something great in your life. You don’t get many opportunities like this and you’ve got to make the most of it. You have to stay hungry. You have to stay like it’s your first one and make the most of it … You don’t want to go down [to Brazil] and not be successful. We want to go down there and shake things up.”
The 30 U.S. players named to Klinsmann’s preliminary roster face an interesting challenge over the next few weeks – prepare for matches against Ghana, Portugal and Germany while working to ensure they’re one of the 23 men on the plane that leaves for Brazil on June 8. Team and individual goals must be balanced. Leadership will be important.
“Everybody is fighting for a spot on the team. There are going to be cuts made, but still it’s about everybody working together and trying to make the most of this opportunity,” Dempsey said. “You try to focus on things you can control, and yes, you can give advice to players if they want advice. But at the same time, everybody’s fighting for spots. Everybody’s working, even players with experience, you know what I’m saying? I think everybody has to have that mindset that we’re all pushing each other to make this team the best that we can make it.”
Dempsey has been pushing himself for years, from Nacogdoches, Tex. to Furman University and from the New England Revolution to the Premier League and two World Cups. Now he’ll be pushing others as well.
“I’m in a good run of form. Feeling confident, in a good rhythm. Enjoying my game,” he said. “But it’s about coming here and putting in the extra work, everybody getting on the same page and trying to figure out what that best 11 is going to be and making sure that when the World Cup starts, we hit the ground running and get the right result.”