Sullivan: Clint Dempsey gives U.S.soccer a chance
WHIPPANY – There was Clint Dempsey, rising above the crowd in front of the Ecuador goal, whipping his head with authority, depositing the soccer ball hard, deep in the Ecuadorian net, pushing his U.S. men’s national team toward an improbable Copa America quarterfinal victory.
The goal was the payoff of a beautiful soccer sequence, the end result of a Bobby Woods to Jermaine Jones to Dempsey series of passes that underscored everything we should know about the 33-year-old forward from Texas. Dempsey, who had scarcely touched the ball across the game’s opening 20 minutes, was more than ready when the clock moved into the 22nd.
And there was Sacha Kljestan, watching at home on his television, nodding his head in knowing confirmation. The Red Bulls midfielder and former Seton Hall star saw plenty of those goals when playing with Dempsey on the national team.
“[Goalkeeper] Luis Robles and I were texting and as soon as Dempsey scored that first goal — I texted him ‘instincts,’Ÿ” Kljestan said. “Clint has it, that fight, that grit. That was a typical Clint Dempsey goal. He could have been frustrated after the first 20 minutes when he didn’t touch the ball very much. But when you put the ball in the box he always has the instinct to go up and win it. What a beautiful header.”
That daring strike would give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in an eventual 2-1 win, and Dempsey did his part on the second goal too, when Gyasi Zardi redirected Dempsey’s speeding, angled shot inside the far post.
It was a monumental victory heard round the American soccer world, one that put the U.S. into tonight’s Copa semifinal, or one more improbable win away from playing for the title Saturday night at MetLife Stadium. Of course that would require a win over world No. 1 Argentina tonight in Houston, a game that presents much taller odds than those toppled against No. 13 Ecuador. But if Argentina’s Lionel Messi will unquestionably be the best player on the field, it would be unfair to Dempsey to ignore how much he means to the U.S. side.
With an attitude forged in a lean, unprivileged Texas youth, with a game molded by the fearless street-playing immigrants around him, with a heart hardened by the untimely death of his similarly athletically gifted sister, Dempsey has made the unlikely climb to the top of the American soccer world, and he is determined to stay there. When critics came out of the opening group stage loss to Colombia with their knives ready to cut Dempsey’s aging legs from under him, he responded the only way he knows how, using two transcendent performances to prove all slights, real or imagined, wrong.
“Clint is not always the easiest personality to get to know every day, because he’s rather guarded in how much he gives of himself. But the one thing you know, when you play on a team with him, that he is going to be a cutthroat kind of player that’s going to want to make the play every game, and that he loves the biggest moments,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said, remembering his days playing alongside Dempsey with the national team or coaching him as an assistant with the U.S. program.
“When you see these games and see Clint showing up, it’s fun to watch,” Marsch said. “It’s like a street fight, and that’s Clint. He’s a street fighter. He’s never going to back down. He’s going to throw the first punch every game, every time and he’ll always be ready for whatever you throw at him. The way I describe Clint sometimes … that out of the corner of his eye he’s always watching people just in case that they might take a swing at him. And he’ll duck out of the way and counter punch and knock out. That’s who he is. This is how he lives his life — he grew up in a tough situation — and it’s really defined who he is, not just a player, but as a person.”
Dempsey’s path to stardom began on the tiny streets of Nacogdoches, a 30,000-person town in East Texas, a place so small it didn’t register on the radar of national team scouts. So while contemporaries like Landon Donovan were being invited to the original residency camps for development toward the national team, Dempsey’s parents were driving him six hours roundtrip to play for a club team in Dallas. Doing that three times a week put plenty of strain on already tight finances, as Clint was the fourth of the Dempseys’ five kids. That they lost one of those children – rising tennis star Jennifer was just 16 when she died of a brain aneurysm — only served to toughen the shell around an already tight family.
The soccer field became his outlet, where no words are needed to express your feelings, where the motivation boiling inside can be released through action on the field, where Dempsey’s 52 goals for the U.S. team now stand only five away from Donovan’s all-time record.
“The thing about Clint is that he came from nothing, really,” Kljestan said. “He talks about it and you can tell about him that he doesn’t take anything for granted. He’s the type of guy who I think always dreamed about being where he is right now but never really expected it and knew he’d have to outwork everybody to get there. So you can see that that comes out when he plays, that he really find his joy when he plays, that excitement when he scores. He’s really one of the biggest competitors I know. It comes back to instincts, crazy instincts in the box that nobody else has.”