Explosions, car chases and sporadic gunfire filled the streets of Cleveland last week. Luckily for the U.S. men's soccer team, which was staying in town ahead of its May 29 friendly against Belgium, none of that mayhem was real. A Hollywood film crew had descended upon the city and was shooting a sequel to Captain America, starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson—which provided an appropriately theatrical backdrop when U.S. coach J√ºrgen Klinsmann named his own Captain America, Clint Dempsey, as the new full-time skipper moving toward World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
This is an article from the June 10, 2013 issue
The captaincy means more in soccer than in any sport, owing to tradition, ceremony and the importance of on-field leadership in a game with no timeouts. In England, for example, it is a national obsession, the stuff of daily tabloid headlines, and the iconic captain's armband is embroidered and personalized for every national-team match. "[The band] is the only visual representation in the game of recognition," says Alexi Lalas, who captained the U.S. a handful of times in the 1990s. "And we're all a bunch of egomaniacs. We want that attention and adulation, something we can point to that says, We're special."
Well, maybe not everyone. Before Dempsey's first game in the role, a March 22 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, U.S. equipment manager Jesse Bignami gave him the option of 15 different armband styles. Dempsey chose a simple red one and wore it inside-out, obscuring any logos and words, saying that he wanted an armband that was "plain like me." As Dempsey puts it, "I don't see myself as the leader but as one of the leaders, with guys like Tim Howard and Michael Bradley."
Given the circumstances, perhaps the U.S. could use that glut of guidance. The team has three World Cup qualifiers in 12 days starting this Friday at Jamaica, and leadership will be key for a team that struggled in a friendly 4--2 loss last week against Belgium before barely preserving a three-goal lead to close out Germany's B team 4--3 on Sunday.
Even Dempsey says he was surprised that Klinsmann chose him to replace 34-year-old defender Carlos Bocanegra, who had captained the U.S. since 2007 but who lost his spot in the squad this year. While Dempsey, 30, may be the most accomplished U.S. player in Europe, where he plays for England's Tottenham Hotspur, he has never captained his club team and has had the reputation of being a talented lone wolf. For most observers, the favorites to become captain had been two other World Cup 2010 veterans: Howard, the 34-year-old goalkeeper, and Bradley, a 25-year-old midfielder whose foxhole mentality befits a player nicknamed Il Generale by fans of his Italian club, AS Roma.
But Klinsmann, who himself captained Germany from 1993 to '98, says he had good reasons to choose Dempsey. "The role of a captain is the right arm of the coach; it has to be a person he has trust in," Klinsmann explains. "But I also have in mind with Clint that I want him to step it up. 'You're somebody that everyone's looking at now. It should make you feel good, proud. But it also makes you feel responsibility automatically—whether you want it or not.' "
"It's more pressure, but it's also a compliment," says Dempsey, who has responded with aplomb, scoring four times in four games wearing the armband, including twice against Germany, to become the U.S.'s No. 2 alltime scorer with 35 goals. "It makes me that much more determined and focused on trying to help the team be successful."
Klinsmann's calculus is straightforward. Howard, and especially Bradley, may be more natural leaders than Dempsey, but they can continue leading without the armband. Giving Dempsey the captaincy will force him out of his comfort zone and challenge him to think more in terms of the team. The hoped-for result: more collective leadership, which is critical at a time when Klinsmann is still trying to get the U.S. to play with a proactive, rather than reactive, style against the world's top teams. As last week's games showed, that project still has a long way to go.
Steve Sampson, who coached the U.S. from 1995 to '98, thinks Klinsmann's captaincy choice is crucial. "It's going to take some time for J√ºrgen to implement his plan and his style, and that will be a lot easier if key members of the team leadership support it," he says. "From a playing standpoint, Dempsey deserves [the armband] because of everything he's doing in England. However, he's not incredibly vocal. I just wonder if he will truly embrace the opportunity."
Sampson isn't the only former U.S. manager who might have picked someone other than Dempsey. Bruce Arena, the most successful American soccer coach of all time, says Bradley would have been the ideal captain. "I don't know the dynamics inside the team, but for me he bleeds red, white and blue," says the U.S. coach from 1998 to 2006. Yet Arena argues that success comes down to more than just the captain, citing the U.S.'s meltdown under Sampson at World Cup 1998, where the team lost all three games and imploded into public recriminations. "What a bunch of lunatics, the whole group," he says. "Bad eggs and everything. Leadership has something to do with that, but the lesson there is that the responsibility isn't all on one guy. The story is the group."
Klinsmann would be lucky to avoid the soap opera that surrounded the captaincy of that 1998 team. In '95, Sampson had given the armband to midfielder John Harkes, a move that seemed validated when the U.S. reached the Copa América semifinals that year. But then, two months before World Cup '98 and seemingly out of nowhere, the coach dropped his captain entirely from the team. Only 12 years later did U.S. forward Eric Wynalda reveal—and Sampson confirm—that Harkes had been jettisoned for having an affair with Wynalda's then wife. "It was a very difficult decision," Sampson says, "because John had such a positive impact on the field." (Harkes has denied having the affair; to SI, he described the time leading up to World Cup '98 as "a debacle.")
If the story is the group, as Arena says, then it's important to know, beyond the captaincy, that Klinsmann has settled on his primary leaders on the U.S. team. He specifies a gang of four that includes, in his hierarchy, Dempsey, Howard, Bradley and 31-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones, a tungsten-hard German-American who plays for Schalke in the Bundesliga. "Going forward toward Brazil 2014, those are the four guys that have the strongest work," says Klinsmann. "Other players have amazing influence and talent, but from an experience and aggression point of view those four will define the path now."
Immediately, two players stand out for not being mentioned in that group: Bocanegra and Landon Donovan, the national team's alltime leading goal scorer. Both of them were left off the U.S. squad for the most recent qualifiers. Donovan, 31, took a three-month-long, self-imposed sabbatical from soccer earlier this year, saying that he needed to rediscover his hunger for the game, and he missed three World Cup qualifiers as a result. Whether he gets the chance to play in his fourth World Cup next year may depend on how well he performs in next month's CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will be composed mainly of B-squad players. (Both Donovan and Bocanegra were included last week on the preliminary roster for that tournament.)
And so Dempsey it is. But what exactly does the U.S. national-team captain have to do? For starters, there are the pregame duties: leading the team out of the tunnel, participating in the coin toss and exchanging a small custom-made banner with the opposing captain. During the game the captain represents the coach on the field, and he's the lone figure who is supposed to communicate with the referee. Lalas describes the role as that of a lobbyist, by turns schmoozing, cajoling and establishing a rapport with a figure who can have an immense influence on the outcome. Here, Klinsmann cites Howard's location on the field in relation to the referee's as one reason he picked Dempsey over the goalkeeper. "I don't want Timmy running out 50 yards for every little thing," he explains.
As for the captain's more private tasks, those include setting an example by training hard every day; serving as a conduit between players and the coaching staff; welcoming and integrating new talent into the team; and preventing competing cliques of players from becoming a problem. Recalling the 2002 squad that reached the World Cup quarterfinals, Claudio Reyna, who captained that team, says, "We would go out to dinner with different guys every night—maybe three guys one night and a different seven guys the next night. That was the best aspect of our team: There were no egos."
How a national-team coach handles seating at team meals can be revealing. When Bob Bradley was the U.S. coach, from 2007 to '11, he made clear that he didn't want the same players sitting together at every meal. (As a result, one group of minority players formed a BlackBerry Messenger group called the Black Table.) Klinsmann has been even more forceful: At his last U.S. camp, in March, he debuted a new dining setup of just two long tables, one for staff and one for players.
The U.S.'s new post-Bocanegra player leadership faced its first big test during that camp with the publication of a Sporting News exposé that quoted several anonymous U.S. players criticizing Klinsmann's coaching acumen. Ultimately, Michael Bradley (Bob's son) took the strongest line publicly, calling the anonymous quotes "shameful" and "embarrassing." And according to Dempsey, players held a private team meeting. "Clint did a fantastic job as our captain, and so did Michael, who we rely heavily upon for his leadership and attitude," says Howard, who was out injured at the time and instead spoke to teammates by phone from England. "Those guys put all that nonsense aside and got the results."
"[These things] can go one way or the other," says Dempsey of the comments. "Dealing with it together as a team ... I think it brought us closer together."
After losing to Honduras in the first game of the World Cup--qualifying Hexagonal, the U.S. picked up a much-needed four points with a victory against Costa Rica and a tie at Mexico in the week following the report. But the competition for a World Cup spot is tight—none of the six remaining CONCACAF teams has more than one win in its first three games—and the three qualifiers this month will determine which teams are in the driver's seat for a berth at Brazil 2014.
Continuity has been an elusive concept under Klinsmann, who has used 27 starting lineups in his 27 games in charge, but he has settled on one thing, at least: a new Captain America. History will tell if he made the right call.
For more on the upcoming U.S. qualifiers, read Grant Wahl's Planet F√∫tbol column at SI.com/soccer