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Don't tread on Clint

Soccer, as U.S. fans know too well, is a sport possessing more labels than Diddy has pseudonyms. You've heard them all: It's too boring; it's a sport for wimps; it will never catch on. Within the somewhat cloistered world of U.S. soccer, the generalizations continue: It's too suburban, too uptight and too bland. U.S. national team midfielder Clint Dempsey is here to put those stereotypes to rest, and not just with his play on the field.

Dempsey, with some considerable help from Nike, as well as hip-hop artists Big Hawk, XO, and Da Beatzsmith, has written a rap song with an accompanying video called "Don't Tread." It's part of Nike's "Don't Tread On Me" campaign that is attempting to raise awareness, galvanize the fan base, and yes, sell product ahead of this summer's World Cup.

Now, asking me to critique a rap video is like asking Britney Spears to review Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I'll leave that to the folks at "The Source." But suffice it to say, the video is a stark departure from any previous marketing vehicle that the U.S. soccer community has ever witnessed. And thank goodness for that.

Think back to just about any other ad you've seen involving a soccer ball. With few exceptions, the images are invariably wholesome and clean-cut. About the only thing that's missing is an appearance by Mr. Rogers. Not so in "Don't Tread." As Nike spokesperson Dean Stoyer put it, "We needed to take the 'mom' out of soccer."

On that front, the video certainly succeeds. An aura of grittiness pervades each scene; the intention being to highlight the game's oft-overlooked working-class roots, as well as Dempsey's rise from his own humble beginnings, a journey that in some ways mirrors the ascension of the U.S. national team.

"American soccer is made up of different types of players from different ethnicities," Dempsey said. "And that's the point that I'm trying to get across: that soccer is a real sport. That it is in a sense a poor man's game, because all you need is a ball and some people to play.

"We're just trying to let everyone know that soccer has arrived in America, and that we're a team that should be respected. We're top 10 in the world, and we're continually getting better. It's just trying to bring awareness to everyone, letting them know that we're here and we're not going [away]."

Dempsey's affinity for rap music goes all the way back to high school, when he would while away the hours by trying out his rhymes on anyone who would listen, and even some who wouldn't, especially his younger brother Lance. The fact that the elder Dempsey's first car, a Ford Probe, lacked a radio gave new meaning to the phrase "captive audience."

"I would be like, 'Stop! I want silence! No rhyming,'" recalls Lance, now a junior at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. "I wasn't a very good passenger. But I think the way [Clint] got better was he was always practicing. And we grew up listening to Down South rappers."

Now, instead of listening to his musical heroes, Dempsey is recording with them, which is something that even he can't quite believe.

"I never really thought that I'd actually be in a studio, producing a track and doing something on this scale," Dempsey says. "And to do it with an artist like Big Hawk, who is someone I always looked up to, and is a legitimate artist, it was just crazy to do [the song] with this guy. He's someone I've looked up to my whole life."

The attention Dempsey is getting from "Don't Tread" comes at an auspicious time for the Texan. Some uneven performances in last summer's Gold Cup, as well as at the end of World Cup qualifying, had Dempsey on the outside looking in as far as a roster spot for this summer was concerned. But a month off following the end of the MLS season in November allowed the New England Revolution midfielder to recharge his batteries. As a result, Dempsey's play during the current U.S. national team camp has begun to turn some heads.

"The MLS season is such a long season, and last year doing both the national team and MLS, it took a [toll] on me," Dempsey said. "I came in more fit to camp this year than last year and that enabled me to work on the parts of my game that I needed to, being better defensively, and just being more effective."

Finding Dempsey's best position on the field has had its benefits as well. Prior international matches have usually seen him line up in the center of midfield, and his play was erratic at best. But during the Jan. 29 match against Norway, Dempsey lined up in more of a wide role, with devastating effect. He was menacing on the wing, and also when he drifted into the middle, where his slashing runs caused the Norwegian defense all kinds of problems. Dempsey's performance was certainly noted by U.S. coach Bruce Arena.

"[Dempsey] is certainly not a playmaker, and he's not a holding midfielder," Arena said. "So you position him on the field where he can utilize his running ability, his ability to get into the box, and be around the goal, which he's good at."

Additional experience has also contributed to Dempsey's recent improvement, allowing him to adapt to the not-so-subtle aspects of international soccer.

"It's just figuring out what you can and can't get away with," Dempsey said. "The international game is more physically demanding and they let more stuff go. I just think it's been that adjustment [that has helped]."

Dempsey's next test should come Friday, when the U.S. takes on fellow World Cup finalists Japan. With Japan's pressing style of play, they should provide much sterner opposition than Norway, and give a better indication of where Dempsey stands as the countdown to the World Cup continues. To that end, Dempsey is intent on letting nothing stand in his way of making the final roster, not even his rapping.

"If the opportunity presents itself where I'm able to give 100 percent to soccer and do the music in my spare time, that would be something I'd be interested in doing," Dempsey says. "But if it would in any way at all affect the soccer, then I wouldn't do it because soccer is my first and true love."

In Dempsey's case, his love of the game is one stereotype that's still intact.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com