If America could invent a soccer hero, Clint Dempsey would be it. For a sport that has long battled in the U.S.A. to escape its reputation as a game for foreigners, who better to embody America’s take on the world’s game than a steely eyed Texan named Clint?
The soccer haters have quieted down in recent years as younger Americans who have grown up with the sport tuned them out, but they have not vanished completely. We have only to look to the recent flare up between U.S. MNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann and ESPN host Michael Wilbon, to see there remains some distrust between the old guard and the still growing sport of soccer in this country.
So incensed was Wilbon when Klinsmann was critical of Los Angeles Laker basketball star Kobe Bryant’s contract, that the pundit said the German born coach should, “get the hell out, get out of America.”
So the sway of the “Big 4” sports still holds. For some the suburban, minivan, orange slice soccer mom cliches have not been entirely cast off, never mind that such imagery is as American as apple pie.
So now with Landon Donovan out of the national team picture, and with the team coached by the aforementioned charismatic German and liberally sprinkled with hyphenated-Americans, we have Clint. Dempsey has everything we Yanks look for in our sports heroes. An ideal mix of grit and swagger, Dempsey speaks softly and carries a big stick. A soft spoken rapper from Nacogdoches, Texas, Dempsey is a Horatio Alger story in soccer cleats.
We know that he spent some of his youth living in a trailer, and that he learned his daring style of play in pickup games with the local Mexican kids. Yeah, he played organized soccer too, but unlike too many American youth players, Dempsey never lost his individualism.
But Dempsey is not just flash, his game is underpinned with true grit. With his perpetual five o’clock shadow and a scowl that says step back, Dempsey has never been accused of being soft. In fact his intimidating glare has been immortalized in classic oversized “Deuce face” posters that dot the stands at his games.
On Monday night the best of both sides of “Deuce” were on display, as the United States beat Ghana 2-1 in the team’s first game of the 2014 World Cup.
With the din of the referee’s opening whistle still reverberating in the fetid Natal, Brazil air Dempsey struck for the fastest goal in U.S. World Cup history. 29 seconds into the match Dempsey brought his swagger to the worlds biggest stage when he eluded his Ghanaian defender with an audacious move and shot that gave the United States a precious 1-0 lead.
That Dempsey would conjure such a move at so important a moment, brought to mind the words of his first national team coach Bruce Arena, who famously said of Dempsey, “he tries stuff.” Stuff, being an approximation of Arena’s more colorful language.
Before the first half ended we would get a look at the other side of Dempsey’s game, the grit. In the games 33rd minute Dempsey was kicked squarely on his nose, and fell to the ground bleeding steadily. Dempsey’s fellow striker Jozy Altidore had been forced from the game in the 21st minute with a hamstring injury, and with the Americans already struggling to contain Ghana, the captain knew he had to stay in the game.
And of course he did. With a broken nose that made breathing difficult, Dempsey played on. He wasn’t at his best, but his team needed him.
To many Dempsey had been a curious choice when Klinsmann named him to wear the captain’s armband. Dempsey had never been a rah, rah guy, and many thought veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, or coaches son Michael Bradley were more obvious leaders. For his part Dempsey has always said that he is honored to be captain, but that it didn’t really change how he went about his business.
Perhaps a night like Monday night was what Klinsmann had in mind when he made his choice. So Dempsey struggled on, and when the U.S. coughed up the lead in the 82nd minute it seemed inevitable.
The U.S. came back on a headed goal from John Brooks just four minutes later. Still, the U.S. looked spent, and not too many observers would have been shocked to see the Black Stars come back one more time to snatch a late draw from the U.S.
Dempsey couldn’t have had much left in the tank, but his team needed him one more time. In the 92nd minute of a 90 minute game, a loose ball was there to be won or lost. Dempsey and Sulley Muntari raced to it, Dempsey got there first, but Mutari kept coming. Dempsey accepted the blow, winning the ball and drawing a foul. Muntari picked up a yellow card and the U.S. ran out the clock, escaping with three invaluable points.
It had taken a huge effort from the U.S. and they hadn’t played all that well. Dempsey said as much after the game. But when it mattered Dempsey had stepped up. Both sides of Captain Clint’s game had been needed, the swagger and the grit, and what could be more American than that?