Many factors have to converge for a national team player to reel off an impressive scoring streak such as the one Clint Dempsey is riding for the USA.
He’d scored three in three Gold Cup group games before ringing up a hat trick Saturday as the Americans dismantled Cuba, 6-0. For Cuba there must have been a sense of déjà vu; when the teams last met in the 2013 Gold Cup group round, Chris Wondolowski scored twice in a 4-1 USA victory a few days after he’d netted a hat trick against Belize.
Wondo didn’t score in the remaining four games as the U.S. rolled to the Gold Cup title without Dempsey, who a few days after the tournament concluded moved from Tottenham back to MLS in one of the biggest signings in the league’s history.
Earlier in 2013, Dempsey scored three goals in back-to-back games against Belgium (a 4-2 loss) and Germany (a 4-3 win), and those games also overlapped a surge of scoring form by Jozy Altidore. After getting one against Germany (Dempsey has scored twice), Altidore scored a goal in three straight games as the U.S. took command of the Hexagonal by beating Jamaica (2-1), Panama (2-0), and Honduras (1-0).
In the 2015 group phase, a sense of dependency on Dempsey had increased with each game. The USA was laboring through its matches, seldom imposing its tempo and pressure on opponents, yet Dempsey scored three of the four U.S. goals, and helped set up the other in a 1-1 tie with Panama by prodding a ball while falling on his backside to Alejandro Bedoya, who relayed it for Michael Bradley to stick away.
Cuba, weakened again during a Gold Cup by player defections, didn’t offer much resistance, and the Americans ruthlessly exploited the time and space provided by their opponents to score six in what was for all purposes a dressed-up training session. Dempsey bagged his hat trick and watched as Aron Johannsson scored with a chip that was somewhat reminiscent of Dempsey’s remarkable goal against Juventus in the Europa League.
The situations and circumstance of those two goals are radically different yet that lob against Juventus is correlation of what Bruce Arena once said of Dempsey: “He tries sh**.”
By doing so, Dempsey is closing on Landon Donovan’s all-time U.S. record of 57 international goals. With six so far in the Gold Cup, he’s pushed his career total to 47. While the styles and traits of these two outstanding players are quite different, they both can create chances and also finish them off. One concern for Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer is finding the next player, or players, in the pipeline who can threaten both ways.
Only two more games stand between the U.S. and the Gold Cup title that will clinch a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Altidore’s lack of fitness prompted head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to remove him from the Gold Cup roster in favor of Alan Gordon. Another change might also help lift the attack; replacing Alfredo Morales is Joe Corona, whose experience against Concacaf opposition was cited by Klinsmann when he announced his choices.
It’s a measure of Dempsey’s cunning and experience that he’s can score if the U.S. isn’t playing particularly well. At many stops in his career, he’s been criticized for not being active or mobile or tenacious enough yet still balls wind up in the net. During that 2011-12 season with Fulham, he scored 23 goals in all competitions, who stood as a record for an American in Europe for just one year until Altidore, playing for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, broke it. Considering the caliber of competition faced by Fulham that season in the Premier League and Europa League. Dempsey’s feat was remarkable, and several years later, he’s consistently productive for club and country.
Dempsey, 32, is the only American to score a goal in three different World Cup competitions. It will be stern test of his mind and body if he desires to play in the next World Cup, but is there anyone cut from the same mold? Can Johannsson grow into that dual role of creator and finisher, or might one of the younger forwards being groomed by Klinsmann step into those shoes?
Donovan’s retirement marked the end of a remarkable era in American soccer, and while Dempsey’s departure is apparently a ways off, it too will significantly change the makeup of the squad. For the Gold Cup semifinal, and presumably, the final, the USA appears to have enough firepower that if Dempsey is surrounded, others can get chances and score. Looking further down the road, U.S. Soccer must again contemplate life without one of its all-time great players.