Rookie of the year is still a rookie
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Don't ask Clint Dempsey about Paul Caligiuri's "Shot Heard Around The World" goal in November of 1989 that gave the U.S. national team a 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago and a berth into the 1990 World Cup.
"I don't know much about it," said the 21-year-old midfielder. "I was only six years old."
Whether he realizes it or not, Dempsey is heading back to the same place that the most important goal in U.S. soccer history was scored, when he boards the team charter to Port of Spain on Monday evening for the national team's Wednesday afternoon match (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m. ET) against the Soca Warriors to kick of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
With only one cap to his name, which was picked up when he played the final 24 minutes of the 1-1 tie against Jamaica last November 17 in Columbus, Dempsey is just happy to be part of the 23-man roster that manager Bruce Arena has selected for this match.
"I'm very excited just to be here," said Dempsey after the team finished its final training session at the University of Miami on Monday morning. "To be put on a team like this where so many of the guys have international experience really makes it a learning experience for me more than anything."
A year ago, Dempsey wasn't even on Arena's radar screen. Even though he had played for Thomas Rongen's Under-20 national team that made it to the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Youth Championships in December of 2003, he was an off-the-bench player that only made one appearance in five matches. He was expected to make an impact with the New England Revolution when he was selected as the eight overall pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, but no one expected to see him burst onto the scene the way he did. Not only did he score 7 goals to go with an assist, but he also was arguably the team's Most Valuable Player for the job he did as a central midfielder.
The Revs weren't even midway through the season when it was apparent that Dempsey was not just one of the top rookies in the league, but one of the top midfielders. Period. It was the type of play that ultimately led to his winning a Rookie of the Year honors over Columbus Crew defender and former U-20 teammate Chad Marshall.
The fact that Dempsey has made it to the final roster for this all-important first qualifier speaks volumes about his development over the past year, and his potential as one of the players to step into the center of the midfield and someday take the place of players like Claudio Reyna and Chris Armas. He's also shown that he can play as a flank midfielder, up top as a striker, and in either a defensive or attacking role in the middle of the park.
"He's a good player -- a well-rounded player," said Arena, noting that he's too young for him to know what his best position will be going forward. "He can attack out of the midfield and he defends well. I think, in time, he's going to be a pretty good player."
Next to Eddie Johnson, who will turn 21 on March 31, Dempsey is the youngest player on the roster. By the time, he enters his second season in MLS, he'll have turned 22, and added precious experience by making such a trip, whether he sees time or not.
"Being here will help him a lot," said Revs teammate Taylor Twellman, who is also trying to break in as a regular with the national team. "Last year was obviously a great year for him. He knows what Steve Nicol wants and how he wants him to play. Being with the national team and in trainings like this really reinforce the two-touch style that we play and help him with moving the ball more quickly."
The speed of play is always an issue for a young player when they move from club play to the national team environment. But he already possesses some qualities that have made him standout amongst many of the young midfielders in MLS.
"His work rate is phenomenal," said Twellman. "He always tries to find the ball, which is such an important trait. He's never scared to be the one with the ball, and he has already proved he won't hide in big games. You can't teach those sort of things."
Even though Dempsey doesn't remember Caligiuri's heroics and doesn't have much knowledge about what went on during that fateful day at National Stadium in front of the same Sea of Red this group will be encountering on Wednesday, he has long been a student of the game. His older brother used to play a videotape entitled "Hero" that showed highlights from the 1986 World Cup in Mexico that Dempsey used to watch religiously.
"I loved Diego Maradona," he said. "Anything with him on it, I watched."
That's why Dempsey admitted to being brought to tears when the magical Argentinean was ruled out of the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for an illegal substance two games into the tournament.
"I was finally going to get to see him play since Argentina was coming to Dallas for one of their matches," said the native Texan. "I was heartbroken. I still remember watching (Carlos) Valderrama and his crazy hair and (Gabriel) Batistuta during that World Cup, but Maradona was the one I wanted to see more than anything."
A little over a decade later, Dempsey now is in line to make his first appearance in a World Cup should the U.S. qualify for the 2006 competition held in Germany. Whether it includes a second-half appearance or even a spot on the game-day 18-man roster for this match is almost irrelevant. The fact that Arena has brought him in for such a match and wants him to see the environment of a World Cup qualifier shows that he'll have a good chance to make his mark at some point during this 10-game run that'll extend through October.
"I assume that I won't be dressing for the match," said Dempsey, who played alongside Ben Olsen as a holding midfielder in a quick 11 v. 11 scrimmage on Monday morning. "(Arena) hasn't made an indication to me one way or another, but I was on the red team today - the grey team was probably the starters, and the red team was the substitutes - and then when he made five changes after awhile, I wasn't one of the changes. I don't want to read too much into it, but I'm guessing I'm just going to see what it'll all be like down there."
Considering that Carnival ends on Tuesday night with a parade that is expected to include 500,000-plus people, Dempsey can't even imagine what he is about to be encountered with upon arrival in Trinidad.
"It's going to be absolutely crazy," he said. "Next to the one in Brazil, theirs is the second biggest Carnival in the world. You can't ask for a better atmosphere since everyone there will be trying to get a ticket to the match the next day. This is what you live for. When you're a little kid, you hear about these type of atmospheres and games, and you just hope to be able to experience it one day.
"No matter whether I dress for the match or not, or even get in, it's going to be one big adrenaline rush."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.