What We Talk About When We Talk About Clint Dempsey

A conversation on the best, and probably the most enigmatic, American soccer player alive.
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These may be emotions, it's hard to tell.

Image via the USA10kit.com.

Clint Dempsey, at 29, is coming off the best season ever by an American soccer player in Europe. He finished with 17 goals, good enough for fourth place in the world's best league behind only two men even casual sports fans would know (Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney) and one they should (Sergio Agüero). With a potential big-money transfer in the works–Liverpool, owned by the Red Sox and LeBron James?–two dudes who cover soccer talked about what makes the dude from Nacogdoches so darn good.

Noah Davis: So Zac, we find ourselves in a place where Clint Dempsey on the verge of a big transfer and is hands down the best American player right now. How surprising is this? Landon Donovan mentioned the fire with which Dempsey always plays, which drives him in ways that no one really understands. But it's not all about effort and desire; Dempsey is one of, if not, the most skilled player that the Waldos have. Does the obvious fury of his game overshadow his immense talent?

Zac Rigg: For me, Dempsey's fury—Clint pounding his chest, eyes nearly bugging out of his face—contrasts not with his skill, but with his pastimes. Clint lounging in a boat, bass fishing. Clint golfing. Clint playing video games. There's a marked difference between the guy on the field and off. Dempsey plays soccer with a chip on his shoulder so big it would flatten lesser men into the perfectly manicured grass, but somehow seems perfectly content with his tranquil life with wife and kids when not doing his job. My questions is: how much of it is desire? Give another random kid from Texas the same abilities as Dempsey and does he go as far? Or are the last 49 Premier League goals the product of icy determination?

Davis: It has to be both, right? Which is to say: I have no idea. This isn't the most novel observation, but I think the well-chronicled Nacogdoches upbringing—both the good sides (the creativity he learned on the theatrically-lit dirt fields; the fire his outsider upbringing instilled) and the bad (his family's financial struggles; his sister's tragic death)—is the key to everything about Dempsey. He seems much more a product of his youth than say a kid from Evanston, Illinois or Princeton, New Jersey—that is, the stereotypical/prototypical U.S. soccer dude—although perhaps that's because his childhood was so unique. But because of that and because of how stubbornly inward he is, it's hard, at least for me and I suspect for most fans, to relate to Dempsey on a personal level. He doesn't offer much of his personality, which I guess is a calculated move by a private man. So all we see is intensity. He just scores goals, does that jump-in-the-air-fist-pump thing where you worry his eyes are going to explode out of his head, and then he jogs back to the top of the formation and starts the process all over. After the game, he takes off his uniform and takes his son and daughter fishing. Dempsey as a chilled-out father does not quite compute given what we see on the field, yet clearly it works for him. It's amazing to me he can switch between modes so effortlessly.

Rigg: He's likely reticent by design, at least about certain things. He speaks openly about the death of his sister, and doesn't shy away from the camera, but that feels mostly like him doing his job as a public figure. Maybe more to the point, Dempsey lacks the magnetism of a star. There's no megawatt smile or super-dashing good looks, definitely no great soundbites and rarely any sound at all that isn't muttered from the side of his mouth in a thick accent.

Rigg: But it's easy to see why it would be this way. Pretty much his whole career, Dempsey has been undervalued—by managers, fans, teammates—and media coverage has followed suit. It's only lately, when the stats became so sickeningly bloated, that Clint's been held in starlight. And the gruesome effectiveness of his game also helps pave over the fact that Dempsey isn't necessarily a pretty player. He cried and boycotted the World Cup when Maradona was ejected from the tournament, but he shares only passing resemblance with his idol's style of play. Dempsey's is a brutal, gritty, glaringly direct manner. He has some tricks—which come off about as often asthey don't—but nothing particularly slick. He also lacks creative vision. For an American audience that grew up with great Latin playmakers (Valderrama, Etcheverry, Blanco, Schelotto), taking to a guy with more gumption than guile—and as comfortable in a literal brawl as in the metaphorical one we pretend sport is—has taken time. There's a little footballer in that futboler.

Davis: It's interesting you say Dempsey lacks creative vision. Many of the classic Dempsey moments that stick out in my mind are moments of individual brilliance. The dazzling goal against Juventus first and foremost. Simply attempting that shot takes some cojones, but having the talent to pull it off is no less important. It is, I would argue, both creative in terms of the vision to imagine it and direct in terms of: ball, meet goal in the most direct way possible. Call it the audacity of hope, I guess.

Davis: But you're right in that Dempsey lacks the team-oriented creative vision. He's not a great passer, certainly behind a guy like Jose Torres or Landon Donovan on the US team. Our subject would rather, I suspect, go through someone than around him. Shoot first, ask questions later. It's hard not to like, really.

Rigg: With a transfer imminent, the main question I have about Dempsey's career is how far he can take it. Usually players have hit their highest notes by the age of 29 and after that it's a matter of mitigating a decaying physique with tactical adjustments and increased veteran know-how. But two things are in Dempsey's favor right now.

Rigg: 1) Players who begin their careers later tend to peak later. For an example, pick any American soccer player ever. The ones that spring to mind are McBride, Keller and Friedel, matriculators all. I also like Drogba's precedent here. The Ivorian striker didn't go pro until his second decade as well, and his best seasons came extremely late.

Rigg: And 2) As opposed to a series of Next Great Hopes in America, Dempsey started modestly before steadily improving and thriving at every stage of his career. He's a slow burner, not a fizzling firework. At Furman, then the Revs, then Fulham, Dempsey at first struggled for playing time, then established himself, then became the team's main star. The way he laboriously adapts suggests, given the chance, he can go up another notch as well.

Davis: Let's discount Keller and Friedel. They are goalies, which doesn't quite seem like a fair comparison. I'm not sure about Drogba, either. The point about the relative late start of their pro careers is well-taken, but Drogba is a physical singularity in a way that Dempsey is not. Which leaves, of course, McBride. And while their games aren't that similar, they do remind me of each other in the way that they always seem to find a way to help their team,. That adaptiveness will prolong Dempsey's career. Soccer's not like basketball where you can go learn a fadeaway in the offseason or add more tricks to your repertoire, but you can improve if you want badly enough to do so. This, quite nicely, leads us back to the beginning of this whole debate: Which quality is more important to Dempsey's game: his skill or his desire?

Rigg: Well, I'm not sure. And I don't really have a guess how far either can take him, but Jurgen Klinsmann seems to think there's at least one significant step forward left in Dempsey. Dempsey himself knows well how short these sport careers are: "You don't have much time in your career," he told Sports Illustrated. "When you're not playing and you're able to play, that's time you never get back. You don’t know how long careers are going to last, and I don’t want to have regrets." I'm not betting on him wasting any big chance that comes his way.

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