The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Clint Dempsey is not an angry person. Countless profiles of the United States and Fulham star reveal a family man who loves his wife Bethany, his children (Elysia and Jackson), and his large family. They tell the touching tale of a young Clint sacrificing his soccer dreams so his talented sister Jennifer could pursue her tennis career, only returning to his expensive travel team after she tragically passed away from a brain aneurysm. A grown Dempsey chats with kids to help them reach their goals. He’s a nice guy.
My personal favorite Dempsey anecdote takes place in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. The American team was sequestered at Irene Country Lodge in a remote part of Pretoria. Cows and chickens wandered the premises, which doubled as a working farm. Although the US staff provided the requisite videogame systems, the players were frequently bored. Much to the amusement of their teammates, on most afternoons Dempsey and his childhood friend José Francisco Torres found themselves fishing in the pond behind their room. You can take the boys out of Texas…
So no, Clint Dempsey is not angry. But Lord, he sure does look pissed on the field. This partially, I suspect, is a product of his appearance. Combine those big googly eyes with a smile, and you get a man who couldn’t intimidate Miss Piggy, much less Maicon or Messi. Draw a scowl (and some stubble) below Dempsey’s big browns, however, and you’re confronting a scary-ass Muppet coming off a five-day bender. What a long, strange trip it’s been from Nacogdoches.
But there’s more. The attacker looks angry because he plays angry, both for himself and his country. It works. See 22 goals for the Stars and Stripes—5th on the all-time list—and a dozen for Fulham during the 2010-2011 season. There are two chips on his shoulder: one from thriving against the absurdly long odds and the larger, collective one he shares with his American brethren who are succeeding in the world’s game.
You hear the refrain that soccer is joy, soccer is love, soccer is beauty. These are overused narratives in the Age of The Special One—magnificence is fighting a losing battle against the need for victory—but ones that persist among the billions who cherish the sport. Barcelona isn’t the most loved team on the planet because we like their uniforms. We hold out for vestiges of the beautiful game.
American soccer in its current form, however, is not about splendor. It can’t be if the Red, White, and Blue want to succeed. Nor should that be the goal. Not right now. The US needs grit and determination, the stuff of Detroit and the American dream. They need last-second miracles against Algeria—Landon Donovan converted Dempsey’s rebound—and sliding goals against Panama in the Gold Cup. They can’t walk the ball into the net, even against Guadeloupe. Not yet, and maybe not ever.
Clint Dempsey’s fury is the most consistent example of what the US requires. It’s not that he can’t mixtape a defender or score the most impressive of goals, but more that the focus is on effort and passion. Earlier in his national team career, the midfielder was criticized—rightly or wrongly—for floating in and out of games. As he grows older, he’s morphing into a latter day Brian McBride, sacrificing his body and soul for the Stars and Stripes, glaring from the first notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” through the final whistle.
At the 2006 World Cup, Dempsey scored the lone goal by an American. He beat Ghanaian defender Habib Mohamed to a curling pass from DaMarcus Beasley and slammed the bouncing ball past Richard Kingson. It was the hardest I’ve ever seen a member of Red, White, and Blue kick a ball, a release of frustrations that were both personal and squadwide.
Then, hard work done, he ran to the corner flag, arms raised in triumph as the anger evaporated for a brief moment. He broke into a smile and shimmied with joy for the briefest of moments before the anger and intensity returned to his narrow face. As Beasley, McBride, and Eddie Lewis enveloped him in a group hug, he screamed, fists balled in fury. The struggle wasn’t over. It never is.
A look can’t kill, but it can sure make a statement as the ball explodes into the back of the net.
Noah Davis (www.noahedavis.com) covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com and has reported from exotic locations including Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa, and Columbus, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.
Adam Spangler’s “The Game Don’t Care” at This Is American Soccer is the one worth reading.
This happens. Surviving boredom may be the hardest part of the tournament. Four weeks of living, breathing, and training with the same people every day under intense scrutiny gets old quickly.
Especially now that Qatar highjacked them.
He may have been obliterated like the devil in the old Nike spot if he managed to get in the way.
It was Dempsey’s backpass to Claudio Reyna that led to the African side’s first tally.
by Noah Davis · August 8, 2011