The man wore crocodile boots, a white cowboy hat and a belt buckle the size of a license plate. Clint Dempsey doesn't remember his full name—hell, nobody in Nacogdoches, Texas, does—but you couldn't miss him on the sidelines of Nac-town's Mexican League games, amid the cigar smoke and the fajita carts and the horchata peddlers. He was the guy betting cash money on the cocky 15-year-old gringo to beat men more than twice his age, proud men from Mexico and El Salvador who'd throw you to the East Texas dirt for trying a fancy move on them. Sixty, eighty, one hundred dollars! The man kept wagering, and Dempsey's team, Zamora, kept winning. "He called me," says Dempsey, "his Little Rooster."
This is an article from the May 24, 2010 issue
Years before he would score in the World Cup for the U.S., the Little Rooster swallowed his fear, unleashing all the tricks he'd seen in his Diego Maradona highlight videos and noodled on in his grandma's backyard with his older brother, Ryan. Stepovers, nutmegs, dipsy-dos: The Little Rooster had everything, even moves without names, moves nobody had seen before. Childhood friend Frankie Rivera recalls one Mexican League game when Dempsey "did some kind of weird trick—it was so awesome—and the guy got mad and spit in his face. Clint just went at him. He had three guys trying to fight him, but he did good. He did good."
And when the Little Rooster scored goals, he wouldn't hold back on his foes. "He'd run around to the faces of all of them," says Dempsey's mother, Debbie.
"They'd be so mad," says his father, Aubrey. "They'd scream and holler."
Says Dempsey, "I'm surprised I didn't get stabbed out there."
When Clinton Drew Dempsey, the U.S.'s most inventive and unpredictable soccer player, joined the national team in 2004, then coach Bruce Arena summarized his primary asset in three words: "He tries s---." It's an approach common in Latin America, where kids often learn the game on the streets, and rare among U.S. players, who are channeled into organized soccer from an early age. Dempsey's style is self-taught, intuitive, like a jazzman's. "It's a little bit of Pete Maravich," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "Clint's capable of making an attacking play that's a little different, that can create an advantage, that can lead to a goal. To have a player who can come up with something different at the right time, that's still such a special part of soccer."
As it happened, Bradley was in the stands at London's Craven Cottage on March 18 when Dempsey delivered his version of Thelonious Monk's Straight, No Chaser. In the final minutes of a Europa League round of 16 game against Italy's mighty Juventus, Dempsey's Fulham needed a goal to complete a remarkable four-goal comeback and advance. Stationed just outside the penalty box, Dempsey received a pass with his back to the goal and took two touches while moving to the right, creating a pocket of space. Still, it wasn't a dangerous position. Dempsey was facing the sideline, with the Juventus goal 20 yards away over his left shoulder. His defender was closing, and his momentum—like that of a quarterback scrambling to his right—would prevent him from putting much force behind a shot.
"Something told me just to go for it. What do you have to lose?" says Dempsey. "When you come on as a substitute, you have to take shots. Otherwise why are you playing in the game?" Ruling out a near-post attempt, Dempsey hit an audaciously delicate, no-look chip to the far post. "I knew where the goal was, because when I'm looking at the ball you can see the side of the goal," Dempsey says. "I didn't know the keeper was out. I just hoped he was off his line. Lucky for me, he was."
With his right foot Dempsey clipped the ball like a Phil Mickelson lob wedge. "If you know Clint, you know what he's trying," says Bradley, who rose from his seat, "and now the ball is sort of sitting up there for a second." Time froze. Dempsey compares the feeling to the one you get when you've released a bowling ball and think you can still control it with your body language before it hits the pins. Goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti could only look skyward and hope the ball sailed over the crossbar. But slowly, slowly, slowly, it fell into the net, with the softness of a baby's breath.
Bedlam. "There's no better feeling than getting crunk after scoring an important goal," says Dempsey, whose celebration with his teammates and fans practically tore the roof off the old barn. Fulham would advance to the Europa League final, the biggest accomplishment in the club's 131-year history, but the goose-bump moment will always be Dempsey's strike—the finest big-game goal ever scored by an American in European club soccer. "It's not just that not many American players would have tried to do that," says Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer. "Not many players outside of South America would have even thought about it."
And therein lies a riddle: As the U.S. develops as a soccer nation, where do skills like Dempsey's fit in the big picture of a country known less for its soccer technique than for athleticism, effort and speed?
If a country's soccer style embodies the nation's aspirations, its strengths and its component groups, then the U.S. "hasn't found yet its real identity," says J√ºrgen Klinsmann, the former German star who has lived in California for most of the past decade and nearly took the U.S. coaching job in 2006. "I'm talking about a philosophy, a style of play, that marks every nation." For Klinsmann, the question is simple: What style should represent American soccer?
Yet others don't think the questions—or the answers—are so easy. For one thing, the U.S. is still a young soccer country compared with the giants of the footballing world. Major League Soccer is in just its 15th season, and the U.S. only returned to the World Cup in 1990, after a 40 year absence. What's more, U.S. demographics are changing rapidly, not least in the skyrocketing growth of the largely soccer-loving Hispanic community. One third or more of MLS's fans are Latinos, and it should come as no surprise that the U.S. television rights for World Cups 2010 and '14 sold for far more to Spanish-language Univision ($325 million) than to English-language ESPN/ABC ($100 million).
For years the U.S. Soccer Federation drew criticism for failing to cultivate the Hispanic community or to include more Mexican-American players in its national teams and development initiatives. But the landscape appears to be changing. One prominent example is José (el Gringo) Torres, a 22-year-old creative midfielder who grew up in Longview, Texas, just an hour away from Dempsey. Torres, who plays professionally for Mexican power Pachuca, chose to compete internationally for the U.S. (his mother's country) rather than Mexico (his father's). He's among the 30 players in the U.S. World Cup camp this week and is a good bet to make the final 23-man squad. More such players are in the pipeline.
For Gulati, a Columbia economics professor who was recently elected to his second term as USSF president, U.S. style won't be a choice so much as an evolution. "We've got elements of European soccer in our teaching and elements of Latin soccer in our playing, primarily at youth levels," says Gulati. "That's all still being shaped, and I don't think that's a decision that gets made by an individual. That comes over time."
Gulati himself prefers the attractive Latin style, which values technique, short passing and creativity. He has hired Wilmer Cabrera, a former Colombian international, as the men's under-17 coach, and last month he tapped former U.S. star Claudio Reyna as the federation's new youth technical director. Reyna, who speaks English, Spanish and German, will be in charge of producing a sort of national education policy for the coaches of millions of young American soccer players.
The 2010 World Cup offers the U.S. a rare chance to show how far it has come as a soccer nation, including in the sophistication of its playing style. Still, winning is what matters most. The U.S. isn't Brazil or Spain, after all, and Bradley knows his team's performance will be measured not by style points but by how far it advances. In fact Bradley's definition of style has little to do with notions of national identity. What he calls "the modern game" is about tactics and matchups, whether you're the U.S. or Brazil or Spain.
"A style anywhere takes into account the qualities of the players—the strengths and the weaknesses—and on any given day what the game will be like," says Bradley. "For us to play at the highest level, there has to be a collective idea of how the ball can be moved around, how you can make sure that your more talented and creative players are getting the ball in situations that allow them to make the plays that make a difference. When the ball turns over on the international level, what's necessary as a team is to stop the other team and win the ball back. You're trying to build on all of those qualities and put them to the test of playing against the best teams."
That may not sound sexy, but it's intended to produce results. And if in South Africa next month the U.S. can repeat performances like last year's 2--0 upset of Spain, neither Bradley nor his boss will complain. "In the end, we need a style that is conducive to winning," says Gulati. "I don't want to play brilliantly, look good and come up short every time. That doesn't do us any good."
Clint Dempsey defines himself as a risk taker. An avid bass fisherman, he'll happily cast into a tree-shaded shoreline if he thinks it gives him a better chance of landing a fish. "Sometimes I get my line stuck in the tree and have to break it," he says. "But sometimes those casts pay off and you catch a fish." He plays soccer much the same way. That goal he scored against Juventus? "If I went for it 18 times, it would only go in once," Dempsey admits. Indeed, when his risky moves don't come off, it can look ugly. That's part of the package that comes with Dempsey's capacity for brilliance.
Finding the right balance between risk and safety has been an ongoing process. The push and pull between Dempsey and Bradley is among the most fascinating relationships in U.S. soccer, not least because it combines mutual respect and occasional open disagreement. After Dempsey and the U.S. struggled in losses to Italy and Brazil at last summer's Confederations Cup, Bradley arranged a private meeting with Dempsey and the coaching staff. "What's going on?" Dempsey says Bradley asked. "Why are we not able to get the best out of the team and the best out of you?"
"I just feel in the attacking third we lose ideas and aren't playing with confidence," Dempsey replied. "You have to take risks."
It was a long talk. "There were some things we threw at him, and he throws just as much back," says Bradley. "It's not so much about the specifics as about putting it all on the table. You could tell by the next day he had a good frame of mind." Dempsey showed it on the field too. In the next game he scored the decisive goal against Egypt that sent the U.S. to the semifinals, and he followed that up with a goal each against Spain and Brazil, the world's top two teams. Ultimately Dempsey would be named the third best player in the tournament.
The lesson was a useful one: Dempsey's unpredictable style can fit on this U.S. team. He tries s---. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But if the Americans are going to make an impact in South Africa next month—and beyond that, to climb into the ranks of true soccer nations—they'll need a healthy dose of the Little Rooster's style.
Dempsey's skills are rare among U.S. players, who are channeled into organized soccer early on. His style is self-taught, intuitive —"a little bit of Pete Maravich."x
2010 World Cup Preview
Detailed analysis of the U.S.'s first-round foes, plus scouting reports on the other seven groups, in the June 7 issue of SI Tim Howard