By Ridge Mahoney
The "heat map" is an interesting beast. Media outlets and Web sites use them to represent how extensively a player moves about the field and ostensibly, how much time he spends in each area he visits and how much energy he expends. From a heat map you can get an idea, for example, how much a left back got forward during a game and an approximation of whether those were just casual jogs or full-out sprints.
One can debate the relevance or accuracy of such graphics, but looking at Clint Dempsey’s heat map from the USA’s 2-0 defeat of Panama last week revealed a range of activity and effort that belied observations he’d been quiet or relatively uninvolved. There was only one notable shot, the followup effort on a saved Jozy Altidore shot that he bounced off the goalpost, and no crosses or passes as spectacular as the bending ball from Fabian Johnson that Atlidore tucked away for the game’s first goal.
Yet against Panama Dempsey played smart soccer of a subtler yet no less important variety. Since leaving the New England Revolution for English Premier League club Fulham in 2007, he’s sharpened his instincts and toughened his body, of course, yet he’s also found ways and means to contribute off the ball as much as on it, to move into spaces to either find the ball or open up space for teammates. He’s a finisher and provider, and also a catalyst that plays any role in a buildup that leads to a scoring chance.
Not once but twice during the lead-up to Altidore’s opening goal against Panama dummy runs by Dempsey aided the cause. He took off on a run through the middle once Geoff Cameron had won the ball and relayed it to Michael Bradley. Dempsey's run in the wake of Bradley’s move carved open the middle of the field.
Once Bradley had played the ball wide to left mid Fabian Johnson, Dempsey’s scything run toward Johnson took attention and defenders away from Altidore, who met the bending cross at the back post to bang home his goal. He did the same thing against Germany with a near-post run that drew Per Mertesacker away from Altidore, who was all alone when he thumped Graham Zusi’s perfect cross into the net. Altidore scoring in three straight games is partially due to Dempsey playing in the hole behind him.
During his tenure as national team coach, Bob Bradley repeatedly emphasized to Dempsey the need to “stay connected. Occasionally he’d be stranded too far from the ball when it turned over or so sluggish in his movements he could be rather easily neutralized. Though he scored in three straight games at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Dempsey sometimes lacked commitment and purpose. Those problems seldom arise these days.
His maturation process has taken some time, but the Dempsey of 2013 is seldom static and difficult to mark for all but brief intervals. He’s quicker to the spots in which he wants the ball, and more decisive once he gets it. Though some fans and journalists want more dazzle, he’s become a master of possession.
He hasn’t lost his willingness to “try sh**,” as another former national team coach, Bruce Arena, once said of him. He is, however, much more cognizant of fitting his individuality into a team approach. Former Revs and USA teammate Taylor Twellman points out that Dempsey picks the times and places to get fancy much more wisely than in the past, and has an acute sense of what kind of ball to play depending on the situation.
Dempsey did a fair bit of floating wide against Panama, sometimes to link up with teammates and at other times simply to draw attention and open up lanes. Yet he did enough during attacking sequences to lay off a ball that Michael Bradley volleyed over the crossbar and played a backheel in the buildup to DaMarcus Beasley’s run and shot off the goalpost.
In addition to smacking the rebound of Altidore’s saved shot off the crossbar, Dempsey set up Altidore for the shot with a short, clever ball. Panama resorted to its rough methods to deal with him. Officially, Panama fouled him four times; unofficially, he hit the ground a lot more often and spoke to a referee a few times about the rulings of fair or foul. He is sometimes criticized for flopping though there’s seldom a need for play-acting when Felipe Baloy plows into a tackle.
The heat map doesn’t reveal necessarily the effectiveness or influence of a player. Modern technology also tracks every player’s touches and passes, tabulates passes completed and tackles won, etc. The generation of such data is glorified by some observers and ridiculed by others.
Tactics, playing conditions and game situations could produce a much different heat map for Dempsey against Honduras than the one for Panama. Regardless, his influence on the game is often reflected in the individual success of his teammates, and collectively by his team. As captain against Panama, he did more than his share.