As soon as the United States had officially clinched their place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Clint Dempsey knew where he wanted to begin his preparations.
After his return to Major League Soccer with the Seattle Sounders was interrupted by a couple of frustrating injuries, Dempsey did not want to spend the offseason resting. He wanted to be playing, and at the highest level possible.
For Dempsey, that meant returning to the Premier League and, more specifically, Fulham, where he first made his name in European football with a club that still feels like “home.”
Home might have had something of a remodel since Dempsey left in 2012—changing owner (once) and manager (twice)—but Dempsey was still eager to return, despite the club also being embroiled in a relegation battle.
“I’m grateful to Fulham for allowing me to come back on loan, where it all kind of started for me in Europe,” Dempsey tells Bleacher Report. “There were other clubs that I had options to go to, but Fulham has always kind of been like home to me.”
With the club at the bottom of the league and even replacing head coach Rene Meulensteen with German disciplinarian Felix Magath while Dempsey was at the club, the 30-year-old (he turns 31 on Sunday) got a little lost in the turmoil, completing just three matches (two of them FA Cup ties) during his tenure without managing to get on the scoresheet.
Nevertheless, he does not regret the decision.
“I knew they were down toward the bottom of the table and it was going to be a difficult situation that I was going into,” he adds. “I wanted to come back and get back to playing with some of the best competition, work on my fitness and form and try to help the team as much as I could.
“The most important thing is making sure that we survive because Fulham deserves to be in the Premier League—it’s a great club with a lot of history.”
Dempsey has three years remaining on his deal with the Sounders, but the temporary loan is something that is unlikely to be repeated, with the Texan admitting it has been "tough" being away from his family.
This year's move was a one-time deal, specifically written into his contract to ramp up his preparations for his third and, quite possibly, final World Cup appearance.
In 2006, he made a late run to be included in the squad and, ultimately, the starting XI. In 2010, he was a key player—famously allowing Robert Green to embarrass himself as the national team drew with England and subsequently reached the knockout stages.
In 2014, all being well, Dempsey will be his country’s captain for the first group game against Ghana on June 16.
“It’ll definitely be up there,” Dempsey says, when asked where that will rank on his list of career achievements. “The travel aspect [having returned to the MLS, travel seems to be one of his biggest preoccupations] of all those games is going to be different but also playing against three really good teams.
“When I saw the draw I knew it was going to be difficult, but at the same time you go to the World Cup to play against some of the best teams in the world.
“We get the chance to play against Germany, Portugal and Ghana, so it’s exciting and [I'm] looking forward to the challenge.”
When the draw was made in December, few gave the United States a hope of progressing. Germany are considered a favourite to win the competition, Portugal are blessed with the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana, who knocked the USMNT out of the tournament four years ago, are hoping to repeat their quarter-final run in South Africa.
Dempsey, though, is adamant the pundits, the critics and the doubters can be wrong.
“I think if we play our best ball we can advance out of the group,” he says, with conviction rather than hope. “That’s the mentality you need to have if you are going to be successful.”
The opening game is set to be the cornerstone of that assault.
“My meetings with Ghana have been bittersweet,” he notes. “I’ve scored a goal in one, and helped to win a penalty that led us to get the equalising goal and go into overtime in the other…but we lost both of those games. So it is something we don’t want to happen three times.
“We are going to do everything we can to make sure we get points out of that game, and we know it’s important to do that if we want to advance out of the group.”
Dempsey believes progressing from Group G will do big things for the growth of the game back home, but even if that is not the case, he has already done his bit in that regard.
If David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles pushed professional soccer toward a wider American audience, then Dempsey’s move to Seattle seemed to take that a step further—increasing the league’s appearance of prestige and professionalism.
Since his multimillion-pound move, Dempsey has been joined by Michael Bradley, who returned from AS Roma to become part of Toronto FC's ambitious project. It turned heads around the sport; here were two established American internationals, having forged respectable careers in Europe, returning to their domestic league at (or near) their primes.
With the likes of England international Jermain Defoe and Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar also making the switch, the league seems to be slowly but surely moving away from its entrenched image as a retirement home for the former superstar and toward being perceived as a competition that can attract players of all backgrounds and situations.
Beckham is now preparing to start his own franchise in Miami, while Manchester City are behind New York City FC and a further franchise is in the pipeline for Orlando. The expansion of the league, and the profile of those involved, only seems likely to continue.
“It is exciting; it shows the league is growing and it does have ambition and that there is a demand for more franchises, for more soccer-specific stadiums and more talent,” Dempsey says.
“I think it’s good that you’re getting quality players back during the prime of their career, or during parts of their career where they still have a lot of time left to play good football.”
Dempsey thinks that the example he and Bradley have set, so to speak, could also be important in inspiring the next generation of young homegrown players to consider football as a viable career.
Suddenly their sizeable salaries (Dempsey earns $8 million a year) can perhaps persuade talented teenagers with a number of possible sporting paths ahead of them that they can choose soccer and still enjoy a lucrative career.
“For American players it’s great, because we’re seeing more American players get better deals,” he notes. “For me, growing up, that wasn’t always the case, it was more international or foreign players getting the deals.
“It’s good for some of the younger players growing up, showing that they can make a living in playing the game that they love, and they can do it domestically."
The most persistent complaint about the MLS is the standard of play, but it's not an argument that Dempsey thinks holds up.
"It’s a difficult league, because it’s a very athletic league, a very physical league," he points out. "I’m excited about starting the season fresh with everyone else in March and trying to make the most of it.
"I have three years [on my contract], and in that time I want to have won an MLS Cup."
Not that Dempsey is advocating for his younger countrymen to snub offers from abroad, should they arise: “I’m not trying to discourage anyone from going over to Europe. You’ve got to do what’s best for you and what you want to accomplish in your career.”
Many of Dempsey’s current international team-mates do play in Europe: Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan in the Premier League; Sacha Kljestan in Belgium; Jermaine Jones in Turkey, to pick just a few.
But many more still play in the U.S., some earning a fraction of what their more vaunted team-mates make. Dempsey, as captain, will have to lead that potentially disparate group in Brazil. Captains are often expected to be the loudest voice in the dressing room, but in person, his style seems more understated.
Will he be more vocal once he puts that armband on?
“I’m not someone that talks a lot in that type of way,” Dempsey acknowledges. “When Jurgen [Klinsmann] appointed me to be captain, I was honoured and also nervous. I had a conversation with him, to make sure that he knew that the [understated] way I am is the way I want to lead, because I’m not someone who pretends to be I’m something that I’m not.
“But his reassurance that he picked me to be captain because of the way that I was, that gave me confidence to just go into that role and be myself and lead in the way that I do.”
The feeling appears to be reciprocated, with Klinsmann's style getting his captain's full backing. Experienced as a player at the highest level and having managed Germany at a home World Cup in 2006, Klinsmann immediately commands respect among the squad.
He’s also an effective motivator. If Dempsey is leading by example on the pitch, then Klinsmann will be the one cajoling from the sidelines.
The combination alone might not be enough to get the United States into the last 16 of the World Cup, but it might not be far off.
“Having a manager that’s played at the highest level and has that experience does bring confidence into the team,” Dempsey enthuses. “He also brings a lot of energy into the group. He’s someone who is always looking at ways to improve the team."
After last year saw the U.S. secure their World Cup berth (winning two of their last three qualifiers without conceding a goal), the early part of 2014 is about building on those performances—starting with Wednesday's off-again, on-again friendly against Ukraine.
“I think if you look at our record in 2013 it was one of the best years that we’ve had as a national side, and hopefully we can continue that in 2014," Dempsey concludes.
“The most important thing for us is representing the country well and making sure we do everything we can to advance out of the group because that will help continue the growth of the game in the States, and that’s the most important thing.
“We’re excited about the challenge and look forward to it.”
Degree Men, in conjunction with the US men's national team, is offering lucky fans the chance to go behind the scenes as Clint Dempsey prepares for the World Cup—and for one fan to even go to Brazil with him. Go to DegreeSoccer.com for more details.