This article appears in the June 14, 2010, issue of ESPN The Magazine. Get the full issue -- the World Cup preview -- by clicking here.
Visit Craven Cottage, home of the Fulham Football Club in London, and this is what you'll hear on game day:
"He scores with his left,
He scores with his riiiiight,
That boy Clint Dempsey,
Makes Drogba look shite!"
Now, visit almost any website or blog that deals with the subject of the U.S. soccer team. With just a bit of poking around on the topic of Dempsey, you'll likely find comments like this one: "He's lazy. He doesn't track back on defense and his effort is lacking in most all games. So what if the guy plays well on the club level, he doesn't do very well (more often than not) for the U.S."
Meet Clint Dempsey, American soccer's human Rorschach test. No question, he's made a mark on the game. Just what that mark looks like, though, often depends on the eye of the beholder.
When the U.S. faces England in its World Cup opener on June 12, few players on the field will inspire more conflicting observations than the 27-year-old Texan. While Dempsey is well-known to the soccer faithful in both countries, he's thoroughly appreciated in one land and routinely overlooked in the other. But here's the kicker: The red-white-and-blue-flagged nation where he commands the most respect is the United Kingdom, not the United States.
The situation befuddles Dempsey, as it no doubt would any red-blooded, "Star-Spangled Banner"-singing, steak-loving American. Still, he tries his best to be diplomatic. "I don't want to get into how I'm perceived there versus here in the U.S.," he says. "But I'm respected in Europe for what I do week in and week out on the highest level." As for how he performs for the national team, fans need only look at his statistics. He scores at a far higher rate for the U.S. team than for Fulham, and he's the second-leading Yanks scorer behind Landon Donovan over the past four years, including three marquee goals at last year's Confederations Cup. "In big games," he says, "I always come through."
That Dempsey is caught in the club-versus-country crossfire probably says something about his ability. Truth be told, the conflict confronts the best of them. Lionel Messi earned 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year honors based on his magnificent club outings for FC Barcelona. When he suits up for Argentina, though, fans and media there grumble when he doesn't score at will. A common complaint about the English national team is that its well-compensated Premier League stars have little interest in giving their all for the Three Lions. "If you're a good player, a lot is expected, whether it's for your club or your national team," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "At the end of every game, there will be all sorts of thoughts about how well you played. You have to be above all that."
True, but there are real tensions between the two worlds. Clubs demand most of a player's time, often 40-plus weeks a year, and supply the bulk of a player's earnings (though superstars earn a fair amount of cash from endorsements as well). National-team compensation, by comparison, is a relative pittance. In 2006, U.S. players earned about $37,500 for making the final World Cup roster, plus $3,500 for each match. While a player's time commitment to his country might be shorter -- roughly 15 matches during a qualifying year -- it often comes at a bad time on the calendar. In May, at the end of a grueling club season that includes high-octane tournaments like the Champions League, there's precious little opportunity to refill the tank before the World Cup.
Still, "the players have to get 28 days rest, or they'll collapse," says Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "The intensity of the English game is so great that it makes it more difficult for those players to perform well in the World Cup." He's talking, of course, about England stars such as striker Wayne Rooney, but he could just as easily have been describing the circumstances faced by any player in a top European league. Within weeks of arriving at their World Cup camps, players from far-flung clubs are supposed to integrate into a cohesive national team, often taking on different roles and playing a vastly different-style game. Think about what that means. Messi, who excels in FC Barcelona's flowing, possession-based, short-passing game, must suddenly thrive under manager Diego Maradona's defend-and-counter tactics.
Against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, Dempsey scored on a stylish, sliding finish worthy of his opponents.
But this schizophrenic state of affairs didn't always exist. Before soccer became completely globalized in the 1990s -- spurred on by the relaxation of work regulations in the European Union -- national teams drew a large majority of players from domestic leagues and often formed a core of stars from one or two elite clubs. Germany relied on Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund; the Netherlands drew from Ajax and Feyenoord; Brazil looked to Santos and Flamengo; Argentina had River Plate and Boca Juniors. That's rarely the case anymore. For proof, just look at the U.S. roster, which features players from English, Italian, German, French, Scottish, Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, Mexican and MLS clubs.
North and South American stars face another burden, shuttling across the Atlantic between their European clubs and their World Cup regional qualifiers in the two years leading up to the main event. If top U.S. players on overseas clubs, such as Dempsey, keeper Tim Howard (Everton), captain Carlos Bocanegra (France's Rennes) and Michael Bradley (Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach) happen to look flat during the occasional CONCACAF match held before a hostile crowd in Central America, they probably have an excuse.
What's strange in Dempsey's case is that observers across the pond think he has absolutely nothing to answer for. British fans, coaches and media -- indeed soccer experts across Europe -- hold him in high regard. That's even more true after last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, when Dempsey was named the tournament's third-best player, behind Brazilian superstars Kaká and Luís Fabiano.
Dempsey's stock kept soaring this past March. Just a week after returning from a two-month layoff to rehab a knee injury, he scored a wonder goal that propelled Fulham past legendary Italian club Juventus and into the quarterfinal of the Europa League, part of a run to the final that capped the greatest season in the Cottagers' 131-year history.
It may have been the greatest goal ever scored by an American in Europe. Funny thing is, it was Dempsey's second-most-important score for the club since he joined in 2007. His first Premiership goal, in a 1-0 victory in the season finale against Liverpool, saved Fulham's spot in the top league and earned the club some $60 million. "It was good for my first goal to mean so much," says Dempsey, who came to Fulham from MLS' New England Revolution on a $5 million transfer. "I paid back the club for my transfer fee. I wasn't in debt to them."
Come to think of it, Dempsey's almost always been money, whether playing for his club or his country. He was the only U.S. goal-scorer in the 2006 World Cup. In the Confederations Cup, he scored the crucial final goal in a 3-0 victory over Egypt that put the U.S. through to the semifinal. The next match, against Spain, a shocking 2-0 victory over the then-No. 1 team in the world, saw Dempsey assisting on Jozy Altidore's opening goal. Then he netted the backbreaking second goal, sneaking around noted defender Sergio Ramos, leaving the Real Madrid star in disbelief and the Spaniards' record-tying 35-match unbeaten streak in tatters. In the final against Brazil, Dempsey scored on a stylish sliding finish worthy of his opponents in the 3-2 loss.
His remarkable run didn't end in South Africa.Last September, during a tough World Cup qualifying stretch for the U.S., Dempsey scored a crucial equalizer in a 2-1 win against El Salvador, then helped set up Ricardo Clark's goal in a 1-0 road victory over Trinidad and Tobago. "I pride myself," he says, "on stepping up on big occasions."
And yet, a consistent chorus of media and fans continues to dress him down. In that Trinidad match, ESPN analyst John Harkes said Dempsey looked tired, even sick. Dempsey heard similar critiques during the Confederations Cup, especially after the U.S. lost its first two matches, to Italy and Brazil, and he hadn't scored in either. "People who aren't educated about the game are going to take whatever a commentator has to say as the complete truth," he says. "And that's not always the case. That's just their opinion."
But while Americans were busy lambasting him, the FIFA Technical Study Group, a selection of noted coaches and statistical analysts who critiqued every player in the Confederations Cup, lauded Dempsey's play -- singling out his effort by rewarding him with the Bronze Ball trophy. The irony is not lost on the player. "I was top three in the whole tournament in distance covered," he says. "You can question my effectiveness, but you can't question my heart and my effort."
Still, he manages to get past the attacks and welcomes fault-finding -- when it's backed by fact. "I'm respected by my teammates," he says. "And I'm respected by my coaches. That's why they keep me on the field. The criticism comes with the money we get paid."
His salary -- $3 million -- might mean more to Dempsey than to most in the Premier League. He likes working in England, but truthfully, he'd rather live in the States. "Off the pitch, the best thing about it is more money in your account," he says. "You go to Europe for the competition, for the soccer and for more financial stability for your family."
Dempsey had little financial security growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas. ("I'm from nowhere, man," he says.) His family lived in a trailer on his grandmother's property, while his dad worked on the railroad and his mom worked as a nurse.
In East Texas, soccer took a backseat to football and baseball. And in the Dempsey family, Clint took a backseat to his sister, Jennifer. Clint, four years younger, had shown enough promise to make a top youth soccer travel team in Dallas, three hours away. But Jennifer was a budding tennis star, winning tournaments around the region. Despite family sacrifices -- selling off a boat, forgoing vacations, skimping on new clothes -- the Dempseys couldn't afford to support both kids' sports dreams.
So Clint dropped out of the travel team so that Jennifer could pursue her tennis career. On the day before Thanksgiving, in 1995, the Dempseys' world changed forever. At 16, Jennifer collapsed and died of a brain aneurysm. "It was like a nightmare," Dempsey says. "Every day you'd wake up and say, 'Did that really happen?' "
The terrible saga explains a lot about Dempsey, and his fierce determination to fight his way up from Nacogdoches to a soccer scholarship at Furman, through MLS, to a spot on the national team and to success in England. It took about a year for him to get past the grief, but the loss helped him recommit himself to the game. Now, every time he scores a goal, he thinks of Jennifer and points upward. "I know no matter how bad things get, things could always be worse," he says. "And no matter how great they can go, they can always be better. That keeps you grounded."
Those words also fuel his robust appreciation for life. He's a hip-hop fanatic, whose freestyle rapping to a British TV host is a YouTube hit; a bottom-line businessman who in 2007 basically forced the Revolution to sell him a year before his contract was up so he could take a shot at making more money in England; a dyed-in-the-wool Lone Star Stater who, when back in the U.S., jumps at the chance to go out for Mexican food with teammates like Jose Torres and Clark; and a fierce family man who spends most of his downtime in London with his wife, Bethany, and his one-year-old daughter, Elyse.
His never-give-in approach to life perhaps explains the perpetual hangdog expression he wears on the playing field -- a look that Americans might interpret as dejection but which Europeans view as a reflection of his focus. George Bernard Shaw once famously said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. He might have had a good laugh over how differently the two groups of faithful describe Dempsey.
While his U.S. fans and detractors alike call him Clintinho, for his ability to create and do tricks with the ball, foreign analysts laud his fundamentals, like the way he set up, and fooled the Spanish back line for his clinching goal.
There's truth to both views. As a kid, Dempsey fell in love with the South American style, he says, "where the ball is your friend and not your enemy." His older brother, Ryan, had a tape called Hero, about the 1986 World Cup, and Clint spent hours watching it, focusing on the magic of Maradona. Then he'd spend hours in his yard trying to re-create the legend's moves.
But Dempsey also responded to more-traditional coaching, surviving two managerial changes at Fulham and one with the national team, allowing himself to be deployed both at forward and in the midfield for Bradley. "I feel like I'm effective," he says, "no matter where I am on the field." That said, he prefers to play on the right or left in the midfield, especially when paired with Donovan in the U.S. 4-4-2. Although they're outside midfielders in the formation, the two aren't traditional out-and-out wings. ("We float inside and become almost attacking midfielders," Dempsey says.) He's partial to getting the ball on a half-turn and running at defenders, relishing a chance to show some of that East Texas flair. At the same time, he says, "I enjoy playing up top, because the closer you are to goal, the more chances you're going to get, and one of my favorite parts of the game is scoring goals."
"You can question my effectiveness, but you can't question my heart."
In South Africa, it better be. Charlie Davies has been out of the lineup since his near-fatal car wreck in October, and the Yanks haven't found anyone to replace his speed and verve at forward. And so the traditionally goal-deficient U.S. attack will need a huge boost from a proven scorer like Dempsey.
Good thing he feels up to the task.
What's more, he's convinced his team can once again shock the world. And why not? It's happened twice in the last year. "You start to think that fate's on your side," he says. "There's a chance to do something unbelievable."
Beyond advancing in the Cup, the personal rewards for pulling off another big win could be huge. Dempsey's success this past year has landed him on giant Nike billboards in Manhattan and in magazine ads all over the world. But he bristles when told he could be the face of the U.S. game. "You can be the face or not be the face," he says. "You get only so many opportunities in major competitions, and you've got to take advantage of them. I gotta stand up and be counted in this World Cup."
For Clint Dempsey, the world's biggest sporting event is another chance to make his mark.
For America, it's one more Rorschach test.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.