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Feb 27, 2008

Dempsey in the midst of a relegation battle

Players who say they'd prefer team success over personal accolades are ten a penny these days, and it's often hard to determine the sincerity of such claims. In Clint Dempsey's case, though, you can be sure he means it.

The reigning men's U.S. Soccer Player of the Year is facing life in the League Championship next season and visits to some stadiums you'd miss if you blinked, unless Fulham can turn things around in the Premier League over the next two-and-a-half months.

Dempsey has been one of the bright spots at U.S.-infused Craven Cottage this season and he is the team's top scorer with six goals.

'The reason you come to the England is to play in the Premiership,' the 24-year-old midfielder said. 'It's one of the best leagues in the world, and you want to be around that environment week in, week out. You can't really panic. All you can do is go out there and work as hard as you can.'

A relegation struggle is nothing new for Dempsey. He scored the goal last May against a below-strength Liverpool that kept the Cottagers in the top flight, his first in Europe since joining from the New England Revolution in January 2007. Then again, Fulham were never in the bottom three in the second half of the campaign.

Dempsey & Co. are now second bottom and still four points adrift of safety following a 1-0 defeat at home to London rivals West Ham United.

When Nolberto Solano scored a contentious winner in the 87th minute on Saturday, it marked the 34th goal Fulham had conceded after halftime out of a total 45 goals allowed. The club might have been comfortably assured of a Premier League spot – and perhaps chasing a European place - if they could hold onto a lead, with an eye-popping 25 points dropped from winning positions.

Even though time is running out - 11 games remain, and up next is Manchester United - Dempsey described the mood at Fulham as 'upbeat.'

'I think we'll be out of relegation, and I think you'll see Fulham in the Premiership next season,' Dempsey said. 'For the most part the team is together. We joke around a lot, and everyone seems to get on well with each other.'

Maintaining good team chemistry couldn't have been easy, given three managers have been in charge in the past year. Chris Coleman, back from Spain and recently installed at Coventry City, was fired in April in favor of the bespectacled Lawrie Sanchez, himself booted out in December and eventually replaced by the experienced Roy Hodgson.

At least when it comes to playing time, Dempsey hasn't been affected. He's the only Cottager to feature in every league game this season.

Dempsey has been used in a variety of formations, including as a lone striker when forwards were few and far between. Brian McBride, one of four other Americans at Fulham and last season's top scorer for the club, only recently returned from a longstanding knee injury. Dempsey still dedicates all his goals to his sister Jennifer, who died of a brain aneurysm at 16-years-old.

His success isn't a surprise to Revolution coach Steve Nicol, a former Liverpool stalwart and Scotland international. Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner, an ex-England striker, knew they had someone special after seeing Dempsey for a week in preseason training a few years back and changed formation to accommodate the Texan.

Nicol even suggested Dempsey wouldn't look out of place competing in the Champions League, the holy grail of European club competition. He's already represented the U.S. on the biggest international stage, the World Cup, in 2006.

'Physically Clint's a horse, but that wouldn't do justice to the ability he has and actual football brain he has,' said Nicol, who's caught a few of Fulham's games on television in the U.S. 'The guy's got ability, and he's really single-minded. Every training session is a cup final to him.'

Dempsey said his transition to English football and life in sprawling London was made easier because two countrymen, McBride and defender Carlos Bocanegra, were already at Fulham. Though he lived in Boston during his stint with the Revolution, he originally hails from Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas, with a population of about 30,000. (Dempsey was given the key to the city two years ago.) Dempsey and his wife, Bethany, who's close to completing her master's degree in educational psychology, live a few minutes from Fulham's training complex.

Mum Debbie and dad Aubrey, who sacrificed holidays, didn't go out much and sold some prized possessions to nurture Dempsey's career and make ends meet for the family, watched their son from the stands for the first time in the Premier League against the Hammers, and are also sticking around for the Manchester United clash this Saturday.

'I think family is the most important thing in life,' said Dempsey, who still sends money home.

He and the rest of the Americans celebrated Thanksgiving at keeper Kasey Keller's home and generally just hang out together. Keller signed in August, and striker Eddie Johnson, Dempsey's roommate with the national team who made his English debut versus West Ham, completed the U.S. invasion last month.

It makes for some jovial training sessions.

'The other guys on the team will go, 'There's Team America,' and it's good fun,' Dempsey said. 'It's good having guys you played with. The big thing for me is having Brian around because he's just a class act, a veteran, a good person, a great player. He's kind of a role model, a guy you look to emulate.'

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.


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