U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann executed a tricky piece of player diplomacy on Thursday by stripping forward Clint Dempsey of the captain’s armband and handing it to center midfielder Michael Bradley ahead of the Concacaf Gold Cup, which begins for the USA on July 7 against Honduras.
Dempsey, of course, has been at the center of a media storm since his confrontation with referee Daniel Radford during a U.S. Open Cup match with his club, the Seattle Sounders, on June 16. Following the awarding of a red card to teammate Michael Azira deep in overtime, the former Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur man knocked the referee’s notebook out of his hand, for which he received a yellow, and then proceeded to tear it to shreds, for which he received a straight red.
Though he has since apologized, MLS banned Dempsey for three games for actions it considered to be “referee abuse,” while the U.S. Open Cup Committee slapped him with a six-game or two-year (whichever is longer) ban from its competition. However, as we noted previously, because the offense was not deemed to be “referee assault”, the incident had no bearing on his national team standing -- he completed his three-game suspension last weekend -- which is why Dempsey will be appearing for the U.S. men at the Gold Cup.
Despite this, Klinsmann decided to issue his own punishment to the Texan in the form of relinquishing the captain’s armband to Toronto FC midfielder Bradley.
"I had a very, very good conversation with Clint about what happened during the Open Cup, but also about how we want to approach things. For the time being we thought it’s the best thing to give the captaincy to Michael Bradley and let Clint focus on what he’s all about. Clint is about scoring goals. We need Clint Dempsey badly with the National Team. We need him in a good spirit.
"What happened was a mistake, but it was the first red card in his career and a lot of people went at him. I think the best thing for everyone right now is to let him concentrate really on playing and doing what he does best. It’s his performance on the field. It’s his delivery for the U.S. National Team, and he has always delivered. He’s at 40 goals for his country and I told him I want him to score many, many more. Hopefully in this summer’s Gold Cup he becomes the top scorer in the tournament. We need Clint in a free spirit and that’s why we decided to kind of take that captaincy and move it over to Michael for the Gold Cup and then we’ll see.”
Regardless of how this plays out -- and as yet, we haven’t heard from Dempsey -- Klinsmann has made the right call here at the right time.
Many U.S. soccer watchers have always thought that Michael Bradley would one day become USA captain, and at the age of 27, the timing for both he and the team is absolutely right. The central midfielder has already turned in several stellar performances as USA captain this year during Dempsey’s absence, particularly during the recent historic away wins in both the Netherlands (4-3) and Germany (2-1), when Dempsey was on paternity leave.
Given how Bradley rose to the occasion in his stint as captain, could it be that Klinsmann was waiting for the opportune time to make the switch, or did Dempsey’s churlish sending-off in Portland actually move the needle?
It doesn’t really matter, does it?
Despite the fact that his behavior in Tukwila was poor and certainly not befitting a captain, Dempsey is 32 and nearing the end of his career, while Bradley at 27 is just coming into his prime -- which means that despite what Klinsmann says, the former AS Roma man is unlikely to give the captain’s armband back to the Texan unless he somehow really messes up.
But Klinsmann has also done a good job here of massaging the delivery of what is essentially a demotion to Dempsey: notice how the German emphasizes that Clint made a mistake, but the USA needs its best goal-scorer to be focused on the thing that he does best -- that is, scoring goals at the Gold Cup -- instead of being made to answer countless questions about his behavior on June 16. To be sure, he will get those anyway, but far less so as a regular member of the squad.
Also, instead of dwelling on the incident, Klinsmann spends the bulk of his answer highlighting Dempsey’s qualities, talking about his fantastic scoring record and about how he hopes the Texan can become the Gold Cup’s top scorer. Here, Klinsmann is trying to build up Dempsey’s ego instead of chopping it down ahead of a big tournament. And, by leaving the door open for him to return as captain, Klinsmann has really passed the whole thing off as not that big of a deal.
It really is a terrific bit of player diplomacy and USMNT PR. Let’s hope it has the effect the German intended.