FRISCO, Texas — There was heat, for sure, but it was only in the air, hovering in a thick humid blanket over sold-out Toyota Stadium.
There was no heat directed toward Clint Dempsey—not from the fans who filled the Frisco, Texas, arena located a few hours’ drive from where he grew up or from his teammates. And there certainly was no heat inside his own head. There, Dempsey was cool and collected. And it was that clarity and confidence that made the difference for the U.S. national team in Tuesday’s Gold Cup opener, which it very well could have lost. Instead, the Americans survived Honduras, 2–1, thanks to Dempsey’s two goals.
When announcing his decision to transfer the national team captaincy from Dempsey to Michael Bradley prior to the Gold Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, “It was just important to take the heat off of Clint.” Dempsey was coming off a three-game MLS suspension that followed his June 16 meltdown in a U.S. Open Cup loss to the Portland Timbers, during which he grabbed the referee’s notebook, ripped it and threw it to the turf while protesting the ejection of a Seattle Sounders teammate. A two-year Open Cup ban also was imposed.
“For the time being we thought it’s the best thing to give the captaincy to Michael Bradley and let Clint focus on what he’s all about,” Klinsmann said last week. “Clint is about scoring goals. We need Clint Dempsey badly with the national team. We need him in a good spirit. I think the best thing for everyone right now is to let him concentrate really on playing and doing what he does best. It’s his performance on the field … We need Clint in a free spirit and that’s why we decided to kind of take that captaincy and move it over to Michael for the Gold Cup and then we’ll see.”
Dempsey, 32, had been the captain since March 2013. He’s not the type who gives flowery speeches or engages in locker room-rallying sentiment. Rather, as goalkeeper Brad Guzan said Tuesday, Dempsey “leads by example.” He is relentless, daring and almost always delivers when it matters. He's the only American to score in three World Cups, and on Tuesday, he got an uneven U.S. squad started down the road toward a potential sixth continental title.
“I always approach the game the same, just go out and try to help my team win,” Dempsey said Tuesday night. “We have the same situation in Seattle. I’m not the captain there. I just enjoy playing and try to go out and help the team win. That’s what I’ve always done through my career … You’ve got to step up when the team needs you and I feel like in my career I’ve always been able to do that.”
There didn’t seem to be any question in Dempsey’s mind that the pre-Gold Cup discussion about his Open Cup malfeasance, the captaincy or his future as the national team’s go-to scorer in the clutch would weigh on him come game time. He has, as he said, typically delivered when called upon. And on Tuesday, he did so again.
“I don’t think it’s bothered him at all,” said U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who went 90 minutes on Tuesday. “He made a mistake and it’s now just about moving on. Clint did what he does tonight and I think we’ll be leaning on him more to score some more goals.”
Dempsey’s goals on Tuesday weren’t works of art, but they were solid striker’s goals nonetheless. Sometimes opportunism, an ability to read the play and timely technique is sufficient. He opened the scoring in the 25th minute after a stretch of Honduran dominance. Jozy Altidore’s bid was saved by goalkeeper Donis Escober, and Dempsey alertly nodded home the rebound.
In the 64th, Dempsey doubled the U.S. lead when he rose to meet a perfect, curling free kick from Bradley and headed the ball down and just inside the right post.
It was his first two-goal game for the national team in two years. He now has four international goals in 2015 and 43 in his career, the second most in U.S. history.
“The first goal was maybe a little bit lucky because the keeper made a save and it came to me and I wasn’t able to get much on it, but it just happened to be right in the right place,” he said. “The second goal was just a good ball from Michael and I wasn’t really being marked and was able to get a good look in on goal.”
Dempsey made it sound simple, but little was easy for the U.S. on a night when Honduras made the hosts labor for the win. Los Catrachos were on the front foot early and again during the last half hour, when they scored once and nearly pulled level. The difference in the game was that Dempsey converted his chances.
“He’s doing what he does best. He’s scoring,” Klinsmann said. “I was a striker myself. If you go through moments where you made a mistake or you did something wrong, all you want to do is you want to move on, and as a striker, what you want to do the best is score. You live for that as a striker. You just want to put the ball in the net … So that’s great. He’s in a good spirit and the atmosphere within the team is outstanding and very positive. But what feeds a striker, his feelings, is goals.”
Dempsey obviously had no issue putting everything else aside and focusing on what he loves doing—and what he does best. Captaincy or not, he has a place in American soccer history and his teammates’ respect because of an ability to make peace amid the noise, to find the seam in a frantic penalty area and to take the responsibility, and the heat, when the stakes are high.
“He always has our respect,” Guzan said. “He’s a world-class player. He’s played in the Premier League … he’s been successful in Europe. He’s been successful with the national team, successful in MLS. Whether he has the armband or not, we need leaders up and down the pitch and that’s what he is. He’s a leader. He’s a leader by example and that’s what he did tonight.”