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 Escobe
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,
-- 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
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.