Anyone who’d watched Clint Dempsey play soccer over the past decade, whether it was for the New England Revolution or Fulham or Tottenham or the Seattle Sounders – and especially for the United States of America – could have told you he’d still be on the field when the final whistle sounded.
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There is this contention among the soccer agnostics, which grows out of the injuries players feign in the hope match officials will be tricked into disciplining the opposition, that soccer players somehow are softer than athletes in other sports. It is laughable among those who know the game, who have seen the sometimes brutal contact involved, who understand why the play-acting goes on even while mostly loathing it.
The absurdity of that position was underscored Monday evening in the United States’ opening game of the 2014 World Cup when Dempsey was kicked in the face, literally, and resumed running and battling and jostling and hustling for another hour as he continued to captain the United States to a 2-1 victory over nemesis Ghana in Natal.
“I would go as long as I could,” Dempsey said, understandably with a nasal twang, following the victory. “Obviously I had trouble breathing. I was coughing up blood a little bit, but I felt fine to keep going.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to start breathing through my nose again before the next game.”
If Clint Dempsey is playing it, soccer must belong to this country. We didn’t invent it (like we did basketball) and we didn’t popularize it (like we did baseball) and we certainly aren’t the only ones who play it (which pretty much is the deal with football). But soccer has been in the States about as long as any of them, just went dormant for a while, until kids in Southern California and St. Louis and, indeed, Nacogdoches, Texas, breathed life into its possibilities.
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Growing up in Nacogdoches, he was 185 miles from the high-caliber club competition Dallas offered. So his family made the commute several times per week, driving him up for practice and competitions, and Dempsey made the investment of the time and gas money worthwhile by devoting genuine effort to making himself a player. He wasn’t making those trips so he could hangout with the cool kids. He wanted to become great.
He earned a scholarship to Furman, which led to being drafted by Major League Soccer, which led to a transfer to England’s Premier League and along the way to a prominent position on the national team. There never has been a sense of satisfaction about any of it – including the decision to return from England to MLS, because the Seattle Sounders were willing to make him the highest-paid American soccer player in history.
Dempsey became an essential part of the U.S. national team because he willed himself into it, always playing with a sense of aggressive confidence -- and underappreciated skill -- that made it important to find somewhere to put him. Right wing? Left wing? Eventually his time in England showed him to be valuable as a withdrawn forward; he could score from there, and he would retreat beyond midfield if that were necessary to retrieve the ball.
In a sense, he made Monday night more challenging for himself by scoring a mere 34 seconds into the game with a piece of sensational skill that split two Ghana defenders and set him up to fire with his left foot to the exact right spot inside the opposite post. It was the third consecutive World Cup in which he’d scored, the third time he’d done damage to Ghana. He got the one goal in the 2-1 loss in 2006, earned the penalty kick that Landon Donovan converted to tie the 2010 game. This time, though, he gave the U.S. its first lead in three tries against the Black Stars.
That goal put Ghana in position to chase the game all evening, which meant Dempsey had to fall back defensively more often and surge forward in those rare moments when the Americans gained control of the ball. And he was without his customary partner up front, Jozy Altidore, who tweaked a hamstring just 20 minutes after that opening goal. So: more work for Dempsey.
This might have been OK had not Ghana’s John Boye tried to scissor-kick a floating ball that Dempsey was trying to head in the 33rd minute. Boye’s left leg slammed Dempsey directly in the face. Boye somehow escaped being disciplined for that dangerous play, but Dempsey fell to the turf holding his nose, wiping away blood, perhaps asking how it looked.
Here’s hoping someone attending to him had the frame of reference to respond: “It’s an improvement.”
But it was not. It was a legit injury that might have finished a lesser player, a lesser man, a lesser sportsman.
“We didn’t play the best game,” Dempsey said, “but we showed a lot of character.”
Clint Dempsey is your captain, America.
Anyone watching Monday night could have figured that out.