Klinsmann's Clever Dempsey Demotion

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. 

His rationale for the decision was published on the U.S. Soccer Web site:

"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. 

19 comments about "Klinsmann's Clever Dempsey Demotion".
  1. John Mcdermott, July 2, 2015 at 7:27 p.m.

    I'm usually a Klinsmann skeptic, but this was a splendid bit of man management by Jürgen. He could have-and perhaps even should have, suspended Dempsey on his own for his conduct. No one could have really blamed him for doing so. This way he gets to keep the best of Dempsey, his scoring ability-and thus preserve whatever advantage Dempsey gives the US in attaining its goal of qualifying for the Confederations Cup in Russia. And this way he is not seen as indulging the bad behavior of a star player or giving him special treatment. Well done, Jürgen!

  2. John Soares, July 2, 2015 at 8 p.m.

    JK & diplomacy!? I too have been a JK critic... not of his coaching capabilities but precisely his lack diplomacy/class/style with players and press. This was a smart and correct move. Good work JK.... there I said it:)

  3. Winston Stewart, July 2, 2015 at 8:28 p.m.

    I completely disagree with what JK did. No player, regardless of who he may be, is above being held accountable for their unacceptable behavior. If it was another player, would JK have the same approach? Dempsey should not be playing for the US in the Gold Cup, regardless of it being his "first red card in his career". It is not the number of red cards, it is the reason why he got the red card that should have instructed JK's decision.

    Importantly, Dempsey is a role model for young players, so his action has far-reaching implications beyond the immediate game where he committed infractions. To have yanked the referee's book from him and then rip it to shreds was a clear demonstration of Dempsey's disgust, disrespect and disregard for the authority of the referee. Is this the message that we want to send to our young players, that if you are a star player you can expect to receive an "encouraging talking to" despite bad behavior on the field? I don't think so, and USSF should review the decision made by JK and overturn it.

  4. David Huff, July 2, 2015 at 9:17 p.m.

    Agree with Winston Stewart, Dempsey should be banned for life while the awful state of MLS refereeing is allowed to continue.

  5. Lou vulovich, July 2, 2015 at 9:25 p.m.

    Dempsey has been a great ambassador of US soccer, he makes one mistake and people want his head. What about when referees make mistakes which cause players a season, cause teams millions, I don't see them publicly hung.
    Great decision by JK. The MLS has allowed way too much dissent from players forever. On the other hand the quality of refereeing in the MLS is probably as bad as it gets .

  6. Joe Linzner, July 2, 2015 at 10:03 p.m.

    Not clever at all but most certainly correct. What Dempsey did was wrong although I do understand his frustration with the inept referee, who unfortunately get's no report card for his ineffectiveness and incompetency. However Mr Klinsmann handled this with tact. He is to be commended. Mr Bradley does deserve it!

  7. Nalin Carney, July 2, 2015 at 10:26 p.m.

    I think Bradley should have been named captain ahead of Dempsey in the first place........Deuce is a great forward but I think not a great example to lead.

  8. Vince Leone, July 2, 2015 at 10:46 p.m.

    Well done by JK, and I wonder if previous USMNT coaches would have handled it as well. I suspect not. I think JK's history as a player influenced how he dealt with this situation.

  9. John Mcdermott, July 2, 2015 at 10:47 p.m.

    "Banned for life"? What would you suggest as an adequate punishment if he had actually assaulted and injured someone? I once saw a goalkeeper run 40 yards after a penalty kick to karate kick a referee in the neck from behind and he was, quite correctly, banned for life...and arrested. But doing that to Dempsey in this instance would be the equivalent of sentencing someone to death for disorderly conduct.

  10. Lou vulovich, July 2, 2015 at 11:38 p.m.

    I think David was being sarcastic.

  11. Winston Stewart, July 3, 2015 at 10:16 a.m.

    David Huff, continue huffing and puffing your sarcastic drivel; it may get you a stand-up comedy gig in the next millennium!

  12. Kent James, July 3, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.

    John Soures, I completely agree. Diplomacy (or even tact) is not JK's strong point, but here he did quite well. I've never been a big Dempsey fan (he is quite creative, but I've always had trouble with what appears to be a bad attitude), and since the team did quite well without him, I would have been okay leaving him off the Gold Cup roster. But when he plays well, he can be quite dangerous. I'm more impressed with JK's diplomacy than having Dempsey back.

  13. Brian Kraft, July 3, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.

    Vince Leone thinks that "previous USMNT coaches would [not] have handled it as well." That is nonsense based on nothing. Bruce Arena, in particular, is a master manager of men who gets the most from his players and rarely missteps. His long record of brilliant success...goes apparently unnoticed by VL.

  14. Scott Johnson, July 4, 2015 at 2:55 a.m.

    Minor correction: The Portland/Seattle Open Cup match in which Dempsey did his thing was played in Tukwila, WA (a Seattle suburb), not in Portland. The article gets it right in a few places, but wrong in at least one.

  15. William Anderson, July 6, 2015 at 10:43 a.m.

    Great Job Klinsmann, and please never add Winston to the staff. First Red Card EVER for Dempsey, and he wants a head on a pike. Clearly doesn't understand player management. If you want a team of "Choir Boys" you will have a great concert, but a piss-poor soccer game.

  16. Lonaka K, July 7, 2015 at 7:15 a.m.

    First decent decision Klimsmann made. Spoiled brats should be put in their places.

  17. Lonaka K, July 7, 2015 at 7:22 a.m.

    I for one would NOT want Dempsey as a role model for my son. Do you want your son or daughter walking around with tattoos on their body, never smile and act like a spoiled brat? Too many of our stars are not very good role models.

  18. Margaret Manning, July 7, 2015 at 3:34 p.m.

    Ooohhhh-tattoos !! I think Dempsey would be a great role model for your son.

    Continue to think this was worth it, even though USSF managed to get Dempsey for the freakin' Gold Cup and deny Sounders their continuing dominance.

    As for captaincy, who cares? Bradley did a great job in the Europe friendlies.

    In summary, the idiots want Dempsey banned for life while the awful state of MLS refereeing is allowed to continue. I think the entire team should have walked off that field.

  19. Margaret Manning, July 7, 2015 at 3:36 p.m.

    Perhaps Dempsey never smiles because he's disgusted with the standard of officiating in MLS?

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