[USA SPOTLIGHT] He remembers a brasher, impatient, sometimes impetuous Dempsey, a brazen kid so packed with talent he and his fellow coaches knew he'd go places, sooner or later.
“He spoke to Stevie Nicol and me all the time,” recalls former Revs assistant coach Paul Mariner of the three years (2004-06) he mentored Dempsey at New England. “He’s a young boy, and he wanted everything to happen yesterday, and we had to keep telling him it was going to take a little bit longer, that there’s a process you have to go through.
“We always knew he was going to go to England, we thought he’d be going to Everton at one stage, but he went to Fulham and we knew the environment would be good for him, because he loves the sport and he loves to excel at the highest level. He always wants to show people what he’s got. Thank God he’s enjoying the fruits of his labors and long may it continue, because he’s a great lad and he deserves it.”
On the eve of the Concacaf Gold Cup, Dempsey is coming off his best season in the Premier League (12 goals) not knowing who will be coaching him in July. Signed in 2006 by former Fulham defender Chris Coleman, Dempsey has also played for Coleman’s replacement, Lawrie Sanchez; a veteran manager in Roy Hodgson; and most recently, former Manchester United, Chelsea, and Wales striker Mark Hughes, who resigned last week less than 11 months after taking over.
“We’re a little more attack-minded going forward, so we have a little more freedom,” said Dempsey of life under Hughes. “We still pretty much defend the way we always did, so that hasn’t changed, but there’s definitely more emphasis on getting into the attack and scoring goals.
“The position I play, that’s up to the manager. Wherever I’ve played, I’m always looking to create and score goals, and work hard every day to improve my game and make myself better and do the things that help us win.”
Mariner doesn’t think the coaching changes matter much to Clint, who took on a more aggressive role under Hughes while often playing the right mid slot he usually occupies for the USA. He played a different role in a different system under Hodgson, who guided the Cottagers to the Europa League finals in 2009-10 before resigning to take over, disastrously, at Liverpool.
“What you’ve seen at Fulham is his ability to adapt,” said Mariner last year, before Hughes replaced Hodgson. “He’s done very well for himself, no matter what his position. Whether says Roy says ‘play on the right hand side,’ or ‘play off [the strikers],' he does it, and he just does it with no argument in one of the toughest leagues in the world.”
As has been the case with Landon Donovan, debate rages over his best position for the USA. A tendency to score goals when pushed up front -- after starting matches as a wide midfielder -- has prompted recurring inquiries of U.S. coach Bob Bradley as to why Dempsey doesn’t start at forward. At least one former teammate believes that’s where he should be from the first kick.
“I struggle with the notion that when we’re a goal down, Clint goes and plays up front,” says former Revs and U.S. striker Taylor Twellman. “Why not play him from the beginning up front? I don’t understand why he doesn’t play up front from the beginning and maybe we’re up, 1-0.”
At issue perhaps is not his position, but rather the system and his role within it. His production – a Premier League club record 33 goals, one more than had been scored by former U.S. teammate Brian McBride as well as Frenchman Steed Malbranque – has increased each season despite the changes.
“Mark Hughes was a really good forward,” laughs Twellman, who played that position pretty well himself. “No matter what, obviously he’s going to understand the position better. It’s not surprising to me that Clint has more freedom.
“He’s a top goalscorer at Fulham, yet he’s still accountable to his coach and his teammates to play within the system. He can’t go off on a tangent, where if he was the No. 10 for the New England Revolution and the first DP in team history he’d be doing tricks on the sideline.”
To appreciate the greater role Dempsey took on at Fulham under Hughes, one can look at the season finale against Arsenal, a 2-2 tie. Both goals were set up by Dempsey: not with the final pass prior to the shot, but the preceding one. And had those final passes been played differently, Dempsey might have scored as well.
Fulham took a 1-0 lead when Dempsey intercepted an errant back-heel at midfield and turned to thread a through ball down the right wing for Bobby Zamora, who took it into the penalty area before centering for Steve Sidwell to side-foot into the net. As Sidwell scored, a few yards closer to goal lurked Dempsey, who after playing the ball near the center circle sprinted about 40 yards, just in case.
On the second goal, Dempsey took the ball off teammate Andrew Johnson near the penalty arc and with a trio of slick, right-footed touches dragged it a few yards and then played it wide left for Jonathan Greening. From near the goalline, Greening lofted a cross that Zamora headed into the net with Dempsey stationed at the ready two yards deeper.
“The thing about Clint,” says Mariner. “if you look at all the goals the Revs scored, whether it was Twellman, [Pat] Noonan, [Steve] Ralston, and so on and so forth, Clint Dempsey was always in the six-yard box. He was always in a good position. If Taylor was putting the ball in the net, I can assure you Clint was right behind him, and remember he’s coming from deep, timing his runs to perfection.”
Of his 33 league goals for Fulham, one is especially memorable. On the final day of his first Premier League season (2006-07), Dempsey scored the goal by which Fulham beat Liverpool, 1-0, to stave off relegation. Yet not many goals can match the dramatic, audacious shot that sent the home fans at Craven Cottage into delirium last year.
In the 83rd minute of a Europa League match against legendary Italian club Juventus, his chip from the edge of the penalty area floated under the crossbar and into the annals of club history, which date back to the club’s formation in 1879. With that goal, Fulham won the match, 4-1, and the round-of-16 series, 5-4, on aggregate. Fulham went all the way to the final, which it lost to Atletico Madrid, 2-1, in overtime.
“That night at Craven Cottage they just hammered Juventus,” recalls Mariner, who played more than 500 English League games and made 35 appearances for England. “It was unbelievable. That will go down in the annals of not only Fulham football history but English football history.”
It has also gone down in American annals as perhaps the best goal ever scored by a U.S. player in European competition.
Dempsey hit three U.S. goals two years ago at the Confederations Cup by “getting on the end of stuff,” in his words. In the final seconds of a World Cup group game against Algeria last year he got on the end of a Jozy Altidore centering pass to poke a shot into the chest of keeper Rais M’Bolhi, and Landon Donovan drilled home the rebound.
“If you have that kind of quality in a midfield player, there’s always a chance of a goal going in, whether it’s him scoring it or somebody else getting the chance,” says Mariner. “That’s the key. That’s what we’ve always admired about Clint: his ability to get into those areas to score goals.”