The Rise of Clint Dempsey: How the US National Team Star Conquered the EPL

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The Rise of Clint Dempsey: How the US National Team Star Conquered the EPL
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There’s not much we don’t know about Clint Dempsey, save for the usual personal details that even the most visible athletes keep to themselves, because Clint Dempsey’s story is worth knowing.

Born and raised in Nacogdoches, Texas, Clint honed his skills as player both in the typical American youth soccer environment and against men much older than him from his town’s Latino communities. The former meant long drives from the family home to the better coaching of Dallas. The latter imbued young Clint with a bit of flair not typical in players groomed in America.

His family sacrificed to give Clint a chance at big time soccer while at the same time supporting his sister’s burgeoning tennis career; after her tragic death from a brain aneurysm at age 16, Clint’s soccer became a family focal point.

The emotional burden he carries from losing a loved one still pushes him, as evidenced by his point-to-the-sky goal celebration. Perhaps it’s macabre, but one can’t help but wonder if Clint Dempsey would be America’s best soccer player, or a professional soccer player at all, if his sister hadn’t passed away.

It’s strange to think, in this era of MLS academy growth and discussions about the value of college soccer, that Dempsey probably wouldn’t be the player he is today without his Furman University experience. From club and high school soccer in Texas, Clint went to a small school in South Carolina, mostly because there was no other option.

American players went to college where they could both get an education and play while hoping to catch Major League Soccer’s eye, because that was the system in place. A professional career was never a given.

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While the rest of the world plucked gaggles of preteens and stuck them into academies on the off chance one or two might turn into a star, America made do with the same system that feeds the NFL and NBA.

When defenders of the college game need an example to point to as to why intercollegiate soccer still has merit as a molder of talent, Clint is the first name that comes to mind. Dempsey played college soccer and now he’s a top scorer in one of the best leagues in the world; surely that means college soccer is a fine place for players to grow. It’s a generalization based on one case.

The sense though, is that Dempsey is unique, especially in American circles. Dempsey has an ineffable something about him. He’s not constrained by bland American soccer programming. He’ll try anything, just because he can, just to see if it will work.

Dempsey was clearly always good enough to to be a professional while at Furman, so there wasn’t much question that he would be drafted into MLS.

In 2004, the New England Revolution selected Dempsey eighth overall, adding him to a team that included Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman. The Revs subsequently had their greatest run to date, reaching a conference final and two MLS Cup Finals during Dempsey’s stay in New England.

Then the European suitor came calling. Fulham, the club with the American presence of Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, and Carlos Bocanegra, wanted to purchase Dempsey for a then-MLS record $4 million. By that point, Dempsey was already a rising USMNT star; just months before making the switch to England, Dempsey went to Germany with the United States for the 2006 World Cup.

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He was the only American to score in the tournament.

Dempsey’s move to Europe was huge, both for his continued improvement and for the reputation of American soccer.

As the most accomplished American player in Europe from an individual standpoint, Dempsey is the subject of much debate within the American soccer community. What makes Deuce, Deuce? What combination of factors conspired to turn an East Texas kid into the foremost American player in Europe? More than that, what accounts for Dempsey’s rise to Premier League scoring machine, an accomplishment that now has observers wondering if he’s due to move on from the cozy confines of Craven Cottage and tackle the brighter lights of the Champions League?

Dempsey doesn’t lack for confidence, and he possesses a swagger that comes from being supremely confident in his abilities. But confidence means nothing without the work ethic and natural talent to back it up; plenty of American have been tapped for stardom only to find they didn’t have what it takes or the drive to improve.

Dempsey is not the most naturally gifted player. He’s not fast by most standards, his shot isn’t particularly noteworthy, and his athletic abilities—while certainly good enough for professional soccer—aren’t spectacular. In that way, Dempsey proves in an American body what we already knew to be true from countless great players through the ages.

It doesn’t take supreme visible gifts to be good. It’s something else, something maybe innate but possibly learned, that lifts players to great heights.

A review of Dempsey’s season goal totals since his move to Fulham (one, six, eight, 19, 13, 18 and counting) reveals that Clint’s development has never stopped. Despite having to continually audition for a cavalcade of managers during his time in London, Dempsey has improved year over year.

His 2011-2012 season might be his ceiling, wherever his goal total ends up, but it might very well be the just the next year on which he improves the following campaign. It’s that success, the sharp upward trend in his scoring numbers, that leads to those pertinent questions on whether Fulham is too small for his talents.

Logic dictates, rather emphatically, that Dempsey could be even better surrounded by a better team.

For all of Fulham’s success in the last few years—success not possible without Dempsey’s contributions, of course—the club is still limited. But Dempsey is the brightest light, so while it might be wrong to assume that he’d be as good or better in a different situation with more expensive talent around him, it’s natural to wonder. Both for Clint, and for his fans.

The common thread running through Dempsey’s rise to Premier League star and America’s best player is constant challenge he faced, the continual need to achieve a new goal. Dempsey has never rested on his laurels. At no point in his odyssey has he been perfectly comfortable, or chosen to accept his situation as the best he could do. 

Clint has never been fully satisfied.

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It began with his time as a boy in Texas and the struggle of his family to get him to a quality club, a time mark by his sister’s death and the resulting emotional pain. Then, the move from college to the pros, and from MLS to Europe, so often the overriding goal for American players. Proving and reproving himself to manager after manager at Fulham, a visible chip developing on his shoulder while he fought against a perceived bias against him simply because he is American.

In every case, he met the challenge and succeeded.

Now, Dempsey find himself lauded in most circles, in the upper echelon of Premier League goalscorers, and a key part of the USMNT. There’s all the reason in the world to sit back and enjoy it, with the drive to improve and grow as a player naturally fading in response.

Dempsey won’t do that, of course, because it would fundamentally change what makes him the player he is. He’s already pushing for the next thing, admitting that Champions League football is on his mind.

We know a lot about Clint Dempsey, the cocky All-American baller from East Texas with the willingness to try almost anything and the skill to back it up.

We know his story, as the trailer park kid with a love of soccer who turned an atypical American soccer education—and sometimes tragic personal life—into a stellar career in the world’s biggest league.

And we know this: it’s still not enough, at least not for Clint.

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