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Sep 23, 2008

Dempsey struggles for playing time at Fulham

Clint Dempsey isn't having the best of times at Fulham. And he can't even turn to fellow Americans for a bit of solace.

In his third season at Craven Cottage in vibrant West London, the versatile midfielder, flourishing with the U.S. national team, hasn't started any of Fulham's first five games under venerable manager Roy Hodgson. Dempsey has been an unused substitute in the past three, including Saturday's 1-0 Premier League loss at Blackburn, when his goal-scoring instincts might have been useful, especially after the visitors fell behind in the 84th minute.

"It's definitely been frustrating," said Dempsey, approaching the peak of his career at 25. "The coach that's here now is not the coach that brought me in, and I've had three coaches in a year and a half. So it's been difficult when each comes along, just trying to prove to them that I deserve to be on the field. I felt during my time here that I've shown that I can play at this level."

On a side that missed, for much of the season, talismanic striker Brian McBride -- an Illinois native and a guy Dempsey admires -- the latter stepped up and scored a club-leading six league goals in 2007-08, when he started 29 of 38 matches and appeared as a sub in seven others.

"Stats don't lie," Dempsey said.

He was a mainstay under Northern Irishman Lawrie Sanchez, with an injury to Jimmy Bullard, another midfielder, perhaps helping.

Fulham stuttered under Sanchez, who took over in April 2007 when Welshman Chris Coleman's four-year tenure concluded, and Hodgson -- formerly in charge of the likes of Inter, Blackburn, Udinese, Switzerland and Finland -- was summoned in late December. In announcing Dempsey's arrival, Coleman gushed he was bought from MLS and the New England Revolution to make a "big impact."

Fulham miraculously escaped relegation by winning four of its last five games, with Dempsey a starter in all five following a spell on the sidelines. By the time he returned for preseason training, Fulham signed experienced Hungarian international Zoltan Gera, 29, an attacking midfielder who, like Dempsey, is good in the air.

He can also orchestrate set pieces.

Gera has started all five games, netting twice, and Fulham sits a comfortable 11th in the standings with six points, excelling at home and continuing to struggle away. Few would have predicted Dempsey's predicament, given he signed a contract extension -- under Hodgson -- in May.

"When I was here when [Hodgson] first came, my spot was given away," Dempsey said. "I fought hard to win the spot back, and at the end of the season, I helped be a part of keeping the team up. Then when I came back for preseason I felt like my spot was already given away because there was a new player brought into my position."

While adamant he'll continue to put in the time to regain his spot, Dempsey, whose winner against Liverpool hugely aided Fulham's survival bid two seasons ago, admitted he may have to look elsewhere if he gets too acquainted with the bench. When asked if he thought he'd get an opportunity soon, Dempsey replied, "No."

"But it doesn't mean it's going to waver my determination of working hard and trying to change that in any way," he added. "Every time I go to training that's what I'm trying to do, is better myself and help the team. I'm busting my butt trying to get a spot."

Dempsey is now the lone American at Fulham, an unlikely scenario since four others were around last campaign. McBride and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, at the end of their careers, moved to the MLS; defender Carlos Bocanegra joined Rennes; and striker Eddie Johnson, Dempsey's roommate on the national team, was loaned to Championship side Cardiff City, the reigning FA Cup finalist, after failing to make an impression in his short time with the Cottagers.

Dempsey keeps in touch with Johnson, sending texts here and there, but hasn't been at a loss without his countrymen, two of which were at the club when he arrived -- he only really joined Fulham instead of Everton due to a better financial offer.

His recent time with the national team, however, has turned out to be fruitful in a few ways. Dempsey has scored four goals in four World Cup qualifiers.

"What keeps me sane is the national team to go to and play," he said. "Right now I'm playing well for them, and I find confidence in that. Having two different teams to play for and being able to feel like you're appreciated with one of them is always a good thing as a player."

Other Americans in the EPL:

Ohio 'keeper Brad Friedel had a mixed day as Aston Villa topped local rival and newly promoted West Bromwich Albion, Gera's old team, 2-1 away Sunday.

Friedel spilled Robert Koren's tame long-range effort in the middle of the first half, and James Morrison beat Villa left-back Nicky Shorey to the rebound. Friedel, though, made amends by pulling off a fine save with his hand from Do-heon Kim's close-range header a few minutes later. Illinois' Brad Guzan backed Friedel up for the third straight game.

New Jersey 'keeper Tim Howard, who struggled with Stoke's gargantuan throw-ins last week in a 3-2 win, conceded twice more in a 2-2 draw at newly promoted Hull City. Howard has yet to collect a shutout this season, with the Toffees uncharacteristically having the second-worst defensive record in the division.

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

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