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Dempsey remains the U.S. team's enigma

CARSON, Calif. -- Perhaps no player in a U.S. Soccer shirt can summon a range of emotions the way Clint Dempsey can. Unless you count Landon Donovan. But the range of emotions concerning Everton's newest loaner is so all over the place that he's off the charts here.

Fans love Dempsey for his moments of brilliance and stubborn fearlessness. But when the wall of discontent over U.S. performance starts going up, the mercurial Texan seems to provide his fair share of bricks. Even so, Sunday's news that Dempsey suffered what appeared to be cruciate knee damage against Blackburn, has U.S. fans hoping that the injury will not be as serious as first feared.

To be sure, no American attacker this side of Donovan can so instantaneously turn a match as the rangy midfielder. But when things aren't going well, his body language can become unflattering. Perceptions of flagging effort have occasionally crept into the conversation as they did (rightly or wrongly) at one point last year when fan angst rose to a crescendo.

Complicating the Dempsey conundrum is the perception that he seems to excel at English club team Fulham in a way that he doesn't always in a U.S. shirt. Is the criticism fair? Maybe, maybe not. But this much is certain: Dempsey helps re-ignite the discussion each time he has a swell match in West London. And when he nails a stunner like last week's (Have you seen that glorious strike Dempsey hit against Stoke City? You really should.) it cranks the level of discourse up to 11.

Fans ask anew: Why doesn't Dempsey seem to find the same level in a U.S. jersey that he seems to consistently turn up at Fulham?

Any disparaging talk over Dempsey's doings is a source of frustration for U.S. manager Bob Bradley. He bristles at any suggestion that the fiercely competitive talent is a larger figure for club than country. The manager's lineup selections say it all, as Dempsey is one of perhaps five among the current U.S. player pool afforded automatic starter status.

"We all see that he has a good nose for the goal and that he's good about finding chances in and around the penalty area," Bradley said. "That's something we continue to count on."

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Would things be different if the United States was blessed with a wider array of attacking options? Perhaps. Truly, as Bradley continues to audition strikers just six months short of a World Cup, who else can provide the spunky push from midfield beyond Dempsey, Donovan and perhaps Michael Bradley?

Either way, Bob Bradley wonders if any occasional Dempsey downer talk is just a figment of fan and media imagination, one amplified by the vagaries of TV.

He may be right. The good U.S. fan sees Dempsey in every important U.S. match, watching a man as subject to the ups and downs as the team around him. Meanwhile, that same fan may catch only the occasional Fulham match. After all, the side from little Craven Cottage, among the smaller EPL grounds, is one of the less storied wonders in England's top tier. Unadorned with the history, star appeal or the power purse employed so liberally by more exalted EPL sides, Fulham is way down the pecking order when cable channels divvy up their weekly slots.

So we all "ooh" and "ah" over the highlights when Dempsey does something meaningful, as when he hit the 35-yard weapons-grade strike two weeks ago, or when he supplied a massive goal in May 2007 that ensured Fulham's status as a top-flight side for another year. Dempsey is so highly valued at the West London grounds that he was handed an extension last August that will keep him at Craven Cottage through 2013.

Still, Dempsey isn't rating 7s and 8s in every match. Who does, after all? If he goes out and has a stinker, or just has a regular ol' workaday performance -- not good, not bad, nothing special -- we all just shrug and return to life, wondering if our jobs will there next week.

In other words, we remember the fabulous at Fulham but fail to consider the context of the larger body of work. As Bradley says, Dempsey has good days, better days and OK days just like any other fellow in cleats.

And don't get the U.S. boss started on any talk that Dempsey plays a different role for Fulham. He says Dempsey occupies the very same responsibilities, stationed out wide in midfield but tilted to the inside. (Bradley does understand that the back-and-forth over whether the versatile attacker should be stationed closer to goal adds an element to the Dempsey discussion.)

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So why the occasional fan consternation? In many ways, Dempsey is a microcosm of the way U.S. fans see the entire team. He can and does manufacture these memorable moments. But the gaps in between can leave fans frustrated, wondering why things can't be more consistent.

Are there patterns in Dempsey's approach and elements of his game that probably bother Bradley? Probably, but we'll never know. Bradley would never say so publicly.

Tim Howard could one day concede a goal while obliviously texting from inside the U.S. net. Afterward, Bradley would sit in the postgame news conference and, with a face as straight as a touchline, say something like: "Well, Tim's a veteran and he's aware that there is always room for improvement. We understand and Tim understands that he'll have better games."

That doesn't mean Bradley wouldn't take the man apart behind closed doors. It just means it's not Bradley's way to spank players in public. Some managers leverage public sentiment as a motivational gambit. Bradley's toolbox doesn't include that particular wrench.

But what U.S. fans see, Bradley sees. And you can bet your favorite U.S. scarf that any unhandsome moments or unsatisfactory performances get addressed. What Bradley does say publicly is this: Anything fans and media types notice in Dempsey's game that doesn't meet approval is a product of the player's steadfast competitiveness. Bradley appreciates that Dempsey wants to play and values winning -- even if those instincts manifest themselves in less-than-perfect ways.

"So in some moments, if he looks frustrated, it's because of those qualities," Bradley said.

That's about as close as you'll ever get to hearing Bradley publicly criticize a U.S. performer.

Dempsey was certainly a lighting rod for fan criticism last summer. From a distance it appeared that a few Americans had gotten a little too comfortable with their starting roles. Dempsey's impact seemed to wane in the spring, and it dropped even further for two-plus matches in a Confederations Cup stay that was going askew.

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Then the worm turned in a big way. Dempsey supplied the critical third goal (the U.S. needed to win by three) against Egypt, propelling the United States into a now-famous date with Spain, one that would change the way everyone felt about this version of the national team.

That one ended a personal career-worst eight-game scoreless streak in the national shirt. His most recent strike had come in September 2008, 10 months earlier. Fans wondered about fatigue or pondered whether some sort of odd international apathy had set it.

While some called for his benching, the manager counted on Dempsey to be the same fearless attacker, one unafraid to throw himself around near goal, one who never once shrank from the moment.

What American fan could forget the man's strike against Ghana at the 2006 World Cup in Germany? What a picture-perfect demonstration of Dempsey's best qualities, an audacious strike born of aggressive action and confidence near goal. Or how about last September? With a U.S. place in South Africa still unsecured, a match was not going well against El Salvador. Dempsey was utterly invisible -- until his clinical diving header equalized just before the half.

Another big moment for Dempsey. Another layer in the ongoing Dempsey discussion.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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