Clint Dempsey’s star turn against Costa Rica in the Gold Cup semi-final did more than win his team the game and help the striker match the US goalscoring record — it may have extended his meaningful international career by another season.
There was a danger that by the time the Russia World Cup came around, Dempsey would represent the kind of selection headache for Bruce Arena that Landon Donovan became for Jürgen Klinsmann in 2014 — no longer a player a coach could build a team around, and potentially as much of a distraction as an asset on the sidelines.
Klinsmann needlessly expended a lot of personal capital in leaving Donovan at home, and the pragmatic Arena is likely to take the trusted quantity of Dempsey to the World Cup. But perhaps until this Saturday’s game there was still a hint that sentiment would be playing a part as much as technical value. It didn’t help that the rapid emergence of Christian Pulisic as the star playmaker for the team, had crowded the area of the field where Dempsey thrives.
Even when Dempsey scored a hat-trick against Honduras this spring to cap his return from a heart problem that ended his 2016 MLS season, he had to share the headlines with Pulisic, whose career stretches in front of him. Dempsey, by contrast, impressed but was a familiar presence.
Or at least it may have appeared that way. Dempsey, after all, has made a career out of being hard to define. Is he a second forward? A false nine? An attacking midfielder? A playmaker? A wide player in a three? He’s been all of those of course. And now you can add international supersub to that list.
In between those incarnations there’s often been a period that looks like a lull, but is often the prelude to a re-emergence, if not outright reinvention, and once again that’s the point we’re at with Dempsey going into the Gold Cup final.
In a deadlocked game against Costa Rica, Dempsey’s introduction was the difference. He might no longer be the player whose inventiveness and force of will can dominate the final third of the field for a full 90 minutes, but when he was brought in as a substitute to open up a tight game, Dempsey suggested a key role for himself for the coming year.
It’s that process of instantly animating his peers, as much as the assist and the goal he chimed in with, that was the most promising aspect of Dempsey’s cameo. If Pulisic sits below lone striker Jozy Altidore in most US line ups, there’s not necessarily a natural place for Dempsey to be on the field, even if he was still at his peak. Pulisic wasn’t on the field on Saturday of course but the transformation when Demspey came on gave a glimpse of how the US could function if (US fans should shudder now) Pulisic is injured, or if he is marked out of a tight game.
Dempsey still has that X-factor — a taste for causing havoc. Or as Arena once put it admiringly, “He tries shit.” In that sense, the recent wait for him to finally match Donovan’s international goalscoring record was an odd period — it cast “Deuce” as a crumbling national treasure rather than the more iconoclastic figure we’re used to seeing him as. Watching team-mates feed him passes in search of the telling goal might not have happened on the same industrial scale that once saw the USWNT send cross after cross to Abby Wambach as she chased Mia Hamm’s record, but there was a palpable sense that the sooner the record was out of the way, the better it would be to assess Dempsey’s worth to the team without nostalgia clouding judgements.
Not that Dempsey wants anyone’s charity — it’s to his immense credit that he’s remained single-mindedly focused on the team’s needs, despite the potential indignity of being relegated to an 18-year-old’s understudy. But these few months can’t have been easy.
And yet Dempsey has navigated them — he’s back to looking like a player with a distinct trajectory towards Russia. And with one more goal he’ll be out on his own as the USA’s record goalscorer. Pulisic may be the long-term future, but with the US event horizon all about next summer, Dempsey’s reminded us that he’s still one of the most potent options for the present.
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