There is and continues to be only one Deuce

By Ridge Mahoney

Four months ago in a 6-0 stomping of Honduras that restored equilibrium to the U.S. Hexagonal campaign, Clint Dempsey hit a hat trick that included a sneaky free kick over the keeper to the far post.

On Saturday in a Gold Cup semifinal against Costa Rica, Dempsey eyed a free kick from somewhat familiar angle and range -- about 25 yards out in the right channel -- and once again noticed a defensive defect.

In his first go round as U.S. national team head coach, Bruce Arena had famously said of Dempsey, "He tries sh--." Last weekend, Dempsey reminded everyone that he sees sh-- as well.

In March, Dempsey exploited a positioning error by Honduran keeper Donis Escober,who stationed himself  too close to the near post, a bad spot to be should Dempsey choose to go over the wall to other side, which is just what Dempsey did despite the difficulty of hitting such a shot right-footed. "I saw that he was cheating a little bit," said Dempsey after the game.

On Saturday, 10 minutes after he'd slithered past two Costa Ricans and slid a ball that Jozy Altidore drilled into the net for a 1-0 lead, he saw that the Costa Rican wall -- lined up to cover the near post -- was a man short on the near side. The player at the end of the wall is not supposed to be in line with the ball and the near post; that angle is covered by the second-to-last player. The end player blocks the lane to goal in case the shooter elects to bend the ball around the wall, and again, that is exactly what Dempsey did.

Maybe Costa Rica had deployed its wall in anticipation of Dempsey going over the top as he did against Honduras. The wall of players jumped, and in some instances the shooter will shoot low to slip the ball under the players or between their feet. Yet Dempsey was so confident of hitting that tiny spot just inside the base of the post he curled it around the man at the end, who stuck out his foot but couldn't reach the ball. Nor could keeper Patrick Pemberton.

When Arena brought in six players -- including Altidore, Dempsey and Michael Bradley -- after the Gold Cup first round while jettisoning Kelyn Rowe, Dom Dwyer and Cristian Roldan -- he confirmed his faith in experienced players facing must-win games. None of the three additions played particularly well in the first knockout game, a turgid 2-0 defeat of feisty and foul-prone El Salvador, but all were instrumental -- as was another add-on, Darlington Nagbe -- to the efficient and confident performance that subdued Costa Rica.

By coming off the bench to tie Landon Donovan's all-time U.S. record of 57 goals Dempsey also sparked talk of his role changing to that of a "super-sub." Really, Arena could do little else with Dempsey for the knockout phase, which requires three games thousands of miles apart -- Philadelphia, Arlington (Texas) and Santa Clara (Calif.) -- in eight days. No way Arena could expect Dempsey, 34, to start all three games and contribute what the team desperately needs from him: guile, savvy, vision, and an absolute belief in his ability.

From almost the day he started his pro career with New England in 2004, Dempsey has borne the labels reserved for those players who decide the outcome: "game-changer," "difference-maker," "big-time." He's also lived through barren spells of skimpy production and substantial criticism that requires a resolute persona to endure.

The hat trick against Honduras in March, which was his first U.S. appearance since being sidelined by a heart condition nearly a year ago, revived talk of him sticking around long enough to make the 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup. Also scoring in that game was Christian Pulisic, who is treading a steady course to replace Dempsey as the main danger man in the U.S. attack, and will presumably rejoin the squad when Hexagonal play resumes Sept. 1 at Red Bull Arena against … wait for it … Costa Rica.

When Dempsey barked at Arena while being substituted against Trinidad & Tobago in June the U.S. soccer community -- predictably -- overreacted wildly. "Dempsey and Arena on the outs?" and nonsense to that effect sprang up everywhere. Such is the modern world.

He doesn’t play in the frenzy some fans and observers would prefer, and his custom of leading with the elbows and forearms regularly draws criticism by foes and attention from referees. That's his game and when the moment comes, as it has rather often since March, he's poised to deliver.

Despite the encouraging Gold Cup showings of Rowe and Dwyer and Nagbe, there is and continues to be only one Deuce, whose jawing duels with opponents, referees and the occasional head coach, are likely to be a facet of the U.S. team for at least one more year.    
7 comments about "There is and continues to be only one Deuce".
  1. John Mcdermott, July 24, 2017 at 10:53 a.m.

    Dempsey is a player for whom no replacement currently exists. He is a resource to be used carefully and preserved, and Bruce clearly knows this, and Dempsey himself seems to be coming to terms with it as well. Let's hope he stays healthy.

  2. Daniel Clifton, July 24, 2017 at 5:23 p.m.

    I remember Clint years ago after the Confederations Cup Final that the US lost to Brazil 3-2, coming off the field in tears - sobbing. He may keep a cool demeanor on the field, but the smoldering competitive fire within is there and it is demonstrated by his play.

  3. Bob Ashpole, July 24, 2017 at 6 p.m.

    Great article about a great player. I think nothing speaks higher of Dempsey's mentality than his perseverance during the medical situation last fall. A less determined person would have retired. He still has plenty of game in him.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, July 24, 2017 at 6:03 p.m.

    I just wanted to add that I get the impression that Landon Donovan is Clint's biggest fan. In a very real way Landon is still Clint's teammate.

  5. Ginger Peeler, July 24, 2017 at 11:18 p.m.

    I wanted so much to see Dempsey and Donovan play together. But, somehow, one or the other was always injured, or something else would come up so they rarely took the field together. Then Klinsmann dropped Donovan from the team prior to the World Cup...and that was the end of that. I still feel that we, as fans, were cheated. At least we can continue to take delight in Dempsey and his continuing accomplishments.

  6. Nick Daverese, July 25, 2017 at 6:44 a.m.

    I think Dempsey got a lot better now then when he first came to the national team. Even the phrase He tries you know what did not exist when Dempsey first came up to the national team.

    I never thought he was that good in the beginning. But what I did think was he was better much better without the ball then he was with the ball. Why, because no matter where you put him on the field. When the ball was up field he was alway up to put that ball in. You need guys like that if you want to win games. On guys who tries stuff. They are usually lower percentage guys, but when they hit it you win games. Now he is good because he does both. He is up when the ball is up when he doesn't have the ball. Plus now he tries stuff and can hit it enough to help the teams win games. A lot of American coaches just want high percentage players but even those don't do enough thinks to win games. They don't take enough risks to do things that can actually win games.

  7. beautiful game, July 25, 2017 at 10:57 a.m.

    IMHO, Deuce is a player of purpose and simplicity. He plays within his limits and executes well.

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