Season ends on contrasting note for Dempsey and Johnson
Team America is long gone at Fulham, but Clint Dempsey is making sure the U.S. still has a presence. And how.
Dempsey's performances were so good that one fan interviewed on "Soccer Saturday" -- a popular television program shown on Sky Sports, Britain's equivalent of ESPN -- called the 26-year-old one of the division's most underrated players.
Others to get mentions included Manchester United's resilient holding midfielder Darren Fletcher (how they could have him against Barcelona in Wednesday's one-sided Champions League final) and French international Florent Malouda, the hard-working Chelsea winger flourishing under soon-to-depart Dutch boss Guus Hiddink. In other words, not chopped liver.
"I'm happy with the way I played," said Dempsey, who netted seven times in the Premier League, tying him with teammate Andy Johnson. "I think I developed more as a player. I think I'm a more complete player. I've tried to build every year, and I think I've done that since I've been in the Premiership."
In his third season in England, things looked bleak for Dempsey as late as the autumn. Hodgson, as new managers do -- it was his first full term with Fulham -- had his own ideas and recruited Zoltan Gera in the summer. The Hungarian international, good on set pieces, usurped Dempsey in the middle of the park, and the Texan started one league game before mid-November as a result.
That was against bottom-feeders West Bromwich Albion, with Dempsey's box score making for interesting reading. Obviously trying to make an impression, he registered five shots, two on target, committed three fouls and was fouled himself four times.
"I had to work hard to get my spot back," he continued in a phone interview.
Already a favorite at Craven Cottage -- remember he scored the goal against Liverpool that kept Fulham in the top flight two seasons ago -- Dempsey drew more fans by scoring both goals in a pulsating 2-2 tie in late December against Chelsea, the club's much-loathed southwest London rivals.
Dempsey is hoping for double digits in 2009-10.
"It's something you shoot for, but it's a difficult league," he said. "But if I stay healthy and stay in the team, I like to think I can do that."
Dempsey and co. get the chance to collect more goals thanks to Fulham's remarkable turnaround under Hodgson. Pulling off the great escape on the final day of last season to avoid relegation, Fulham earned a Europa League spot by placing seventh, two points ahead of wealthier and more fancied Tottenham.
The foundation was defense. Only the Big Three of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea conceded fewer times, while a stellar home record helped further.
"We worked on defense as a team, to be compact defensively," Dempsey said. "It was tough for us to get scored on in games, and we switched from a long ball style to more of a passing style, and I think that opened things up for us in attack, even though we didn't have the best record in scoring. We played a more attractive type of soccer and got results."
Ending on a down note
What a roller-coaster season, too, for MK Dons winger Jemal Johnson.
Unlike Dempsey, it didn't end well.
One minute he was riding the bench; the next he was man of the match. Then when crunch time arrived Johnson was cast aside by manager Roberto Di Matteo, reportedly because he didn't extend his contract.
Johnson refused to discuss specifics of the contract saga, though said he was "surprised" when the team released him last week.
"In this day and age, you can't expect people to be 100 percent behind you," the 24-year-old said in a telephone interview. "It's just one of those things."
Johnson became a mainstay in November as the Dons began to lift off, pinning down the second and final automatic promotion spot most of the ensuing three months. Highlights included notching three assists in a 3-1 win over division giants Leeds United on Dec. 20 and scoring twice in a 5-3 victory at Cheltenham a month later. His 30-yard strike against Cheltenham was voted the Dons' goal of the season.
"Jemal was very popular with the fans because he was one of those players that had tremendous pace, and he had a very good shot," said Roger Widdecombe, a member of the MK Dons Supporters Association, over the phone.
Cue the roadblock.
From early March to the end of the season, Johnson made just three more starts. Much to the chagrin of many Dons fans, he wasn't even included in the squad for the two-leg playoff versus Scunthorpe United. Scunthorpe advanced to the playoff final at Wembley -- eventually going up -- following a 7-6 win on penalties.
Out went back-to-back promotions.
"Coming to the end of the season, the last few vital games, I think there were games if Jemal did get on, he may have made the difference," Widdecombe said. "When you've got quality players like Jemal, often they can make the difference. In the playoffs, it definitely would've been nice to see him. I think most of the regular fans that go to games are sad and disappointed he's not with us still."
Johnson finished in the top 10 in league assists, despite the irregular playing time.
"When I was on the field, I feel I did really well," Johnson said. "At the beginning of the season I was out for a good few months; I wasn't getting picked, wasn't travelling. Personally I feel it was a little unfair, but I can't do anything about that now."
Indeed, Johnson is thinking ahead. Observers suggest he's Championship caliber at least.
Born in Paterson, N.J., he still harbors hopes of suiting up for the U.S. national team. Much of his family lives in New Jersey.
"As I'm getting older, I would've thought I'd have had some kind of involvement," he said. "It would be a great experience for me, on the football side of things, also for my family, for them to see me play. It would be great exposure for me."
Landing in the Championship would help his cause.
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.