At a U.S. training camp in January 2005, during a typical possession exercise at a morning session, something took place that would change U.S. Soccer for the next eight years.
Then U.S. National team coach Bruce Arena broke the group into two teams. He instructed everyone to play simple, keep the ball moving at a fast pace and focus on team shape. In what is normally a tedious practice drill that stresses the importance of team movement, pressure and passing, Clint Dempsey, 21, was in a league of his own.
Time and time again, Dempsey single handedly kept possession by dribbling through pressure and daring anyone to take the ball away from him. No one could.
Arena, noticing the entire function of the training session was being foiled by one player, yelled, "Keep it simple, Clint!" and "Off your feet quicker, Clint!" Until, finally, Dempsey responded with, "Why? They can't take the ball away from me."
Within a second, the whistle blew and Arena made a beeline towards Dempsey. I remember freezing, a younger player myself (22) hoping to make an impression for the 2006 World Cup team. This was January camp, where nobody had yet established himself to be a lock on the roster for even World Cup qualifying. Ignoring the manager's instructions was one thing, but then again Dempsey was absolutely dominating the session. I remember the tension as I wondered to myself how Arena would handle the situation.
Though the coach was miffed that the player was challenging his instruction, Arena was also cognizant that the skill, composure, athleticism and raw talent Dempsey showcased was special. Rather than make an example out of Dempsey, in a mild-mannered tone, he told Dempsey he understood he could dribble out of pressure every time, but that wasn't the point of this particular exercise. He challenged Dempsey to pass, and move, and think to beat his opponents.
Dempsey heeded the advice and took over the training session again. Just as effective as before, except now his teammates were involved. It was mind-boggling how easily Dempsey was able to flip a switch and take control of the game. He seemingly did not have any weaknesses. It was one of those moments where both coach and player did a masterful job of getting what they wanted. As I walked off the field that January morning, one thought stood out in my head: Clint Dempsey can play.
Eight years later, Dempsey is now one of the best U.S. players ever, a three-time U.S. player of the year and a standout in the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur.
Could the next Dempsey surface at this month? The January camp is a great opportunity for hopefuls to showcase their talents in the absence of resting mainstays. The U.S. has put itself in position to reach a seventh straight World Cup, but coach Jurgen Klinsmann faces his toughest task since taking over in July 2011 in this year's final round of qualifying. The U.S. almost didn't make it to the hexagonal, where only the top three nations are assured of 2014 berths. Injuries during the previous rounds of qualifying already opened the door for some Americans to step in and make an impact. That door remains open.
It will be especially interesting to see whom Klinsmann decides to go with on the backline and forward spots. Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson and Maurice Edu at times have done a solid job manning center back, but Omar Gonzalez will surely be looking to break into the mix as he builds off his MLS Cup MVP performance. Don't count out two-time World Cup veteran Oguchi Onyewu. Although he wasn't invited to January camp, he is healthy again and finding success at Malaga. Training camp invitees Matt Besler, A.J. DeLaGarza and Justin Morrow will also be looking to build off impressive MLS seasons to make Klinsmann's backline decisions that much more difficult.
Up top, Klinsmann made headlines in October when he left Jozy Altidore off the roster for two crucial qualifying matches. Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon took advantage of their opportunities in Altidore's absence and created much-needed competition. Both Dempsey and Landon Donovan are capable of playing as a forward, though their best positions are withdrawn or out wide.
There is no question Altidore is the most talented of the remaining candidates, but it is important for the likes of Gomez and Johnson to consistently play at a high level in 2013 and create competition for roster spots. In January camp, MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski will look to add himself to the mix, determined to prove that he can score goals for country, not just club. He will be joined by other worthy candidates. Youngster Will Bruin, 23, and veteran Edson Buddle, 32, must show well over the next two weeks because there are no guarantees they will get another shot before Brazil 2014.
For some, this January camp may be a last chance to make an impression, and for others, like it was for Dempsey, the first step to a long, promising U.S. career.