Without captaincy, Dempsey playing with trademark hunger in Gold Cup

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BALTIMORE — It was no secret earlier this year that Clint Dempsey wasn’t enjoying his time with the U.S. national team. Not like he used to, at least, and not like he was enjoying his club ball in Seattle, a city where he and his family of six feel comfortable. There were even whispers that Dempsey was considering retiring from the national team altogether.

Man, it’s a good thing for the U.S. that he didn’t.

Dempsey, now 32, has been a force of nature in the Gold Cup, scoring six goals to lead the tournament, including his first international hat trick in the U.S.’s 6-0 whitewash of Cuba in Saturday’s quarterfinals. No longer burdened with wearing the captain’s armband, Dempsey is playing with a freewheeling zest for the game, a hunger that defines anyone who’s had a successful career but still wants to drive forward for more.

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He’s also pushing to make history now. Dempsey’s hat trick pushed him to 47 career international goals, just 10 short of Landon Donovan’s all-time U.S. men’s record of 57. With two more Gold Cup games, as well as upcoming friendlies and the start of World Cup qualifying this fall, Dempsey is starting to reel in that record like a big ol’ largemouth bass on one of his beloved East Texas fishing trips.

“I’ve always been hungry to score goals and try to help my team win,” Dempsey said after Saturday’s game. “You try to score as many goals as you can, really. If you can chip away at numbers that’s always good. But the most important thing is trying to do well in the games you have left in your career. I’m just enjoying my ball and happy to be playing with the national team.”

You believe him when he says that. Dempsey and U.S. coach JurgenKlinsmann are in a better place with each other right now than they were earlier this year. Some of that had to do with Dempsey’s fitness in January, but Klinsmann made a point of saying on Saturday that he thinks part of Dempsey’s recent surge is due to his “good physical shape, which is very important. So he has the feeling of ‘I can always get ahead of my opponent.’”

“What we like and really enjoy the last couple weeks is [Dempsey’s] energy,” Klinsmann added. “His energy also to come back and help out, to constantly stay in the game. He’s not switching off at all. He’s hungry. He’s hungry for goals, and that helps us. And so he has two more meals” in Gold Cup games if the U.S. is to win the tournament.

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Every once in a while, not often, Klinsmann reminds us that he too once had an insatiable appetite to score goals. That hunger is a lot of things—ravenous, exhilarating, even terrifying at times—but *nice* is not an adjective you’d want to use.

Dempsey has it too. Before Saturday’s game, Klinsmann told Dempsey and his teammates about his 1990 World Cup group-stage game against the United Arab Emirates. “I didn’t take it so seriously,” Klinsmann said. “I scored only one goal in that World Cup game. I should have scored five. By the time after two games into the World Cup, I would have already been top scorer of the tournament. I didn’t do it. So that’s what I told them: Take it seriously. Make sure you’re not wasting anything there.”

Dempsey’s goal outburst in this tournament is a defiant roar, in some ways, that he’s not going to throw away any opportunities. It’s as if he has worked it out in his head that he still has a lot left to give to the national team. And the team, in turn, needs that from him.

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“He’s just hungry. That’s Clint,” said Alejandro Bedoya. “He’s an emotional guy, and that’s what makes him such a great player … He’s one of those guys I love as a teammate. When I’m playing with him, I’m just looking to find him the ball a ton and play off him. Whatever it was, maybe shifting the captaincy gave him even more hunger. But it’s great to have a guy like that on the team.”

“I think a weight’s been lifted off his shoulders,” said Omar Gonzalez about the captaincy. “He’s playing free. I’d like to see him score a few more goals in this tournament. If he does that, I can see us hoisting the trophy.”

The harder games will come now for the United States: An inspired Jamaica team in Wednesday’s semifinals, and perhaps Mexico in the final. When Dempsey is dialed in, as he is now, he’s the hardest player on the field to play against. It’s like it’s 2005 and ’06 again, and he’s got the fire that he used to break through in MLS and with the U.S. national team.

And it’s something to behold.