Clint Dempsey is as vital as ever to U.S. despite apparent "super sub" role
With the United States men's national team clinging to a 1-0 lead in the 82nd minute of Saturday night's Gold Cup semifinal, Clint Dempsey prepared to take a free kick from 25 yards. He stood over the ball, feet a little wider than shoulder-width, the picture of calm as he surveyed the defensive wall and Costa Rica goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton's positioning.
The 34-year-old Dempsey, who had replaced Paul Arriola 20 minutes into the second half, started his run up with a half-step and a little hop, followed by a quick series of stutter steps. He blasted the ball with his right foot, sending it skipping on the ground past the leaping wall before it tucked inside Pemberton's post.
Dempsey celebrated by running away, arms out from his side, face focused and determined. It wasn't the unbridled enthusiasm of a rookie notching his first goal but rather a veteran who has been there many times before. After all, he had been. The tally, Dempsey's 57th for the U.S., sent them into the Gold Cup final and tied him with Landon Donovan for the team's all-time lead.
The fact that Dempsey will soon stand alone atop the American scoring charts is shocking, though more recently, it's also felt inevitable. On one hand, it's shocking because of the long, improbable road he had to travel to even make the American squad, much less start and score consistently. (Cue a narrator's voice-over about growing up on the dirt fields of Nacogdoches, Texas ...)
Equally, it's inevitable because, over the past few years, it has become clear how much more dangerous Dempsey is in front of net than the rest of his teammates. He was always going to get the record once he returned from the heart condition that kept him out for six months between late 2016 and early 2017.
Of course, setting a national team record for goals requires being consistently excellent over a long stretch of time. Dempsey has been just that, scoring at least two goals every year since 2005, when he found the back of the net for the first time in a friendly against England at Soldier Field. (He was even a focal point of the attack during Bruce Arena's first stint at the top of the squad.)
Dempsey has come up big in major tournaments, becoming the first American to tally in three consecutive World Cups -- his 2006 strike against Ghana remains the hardest ball I've ever seen anyone kick in person -- getting three goals each in the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2015 Copa América Centenario,while also finding 18 World Cup qualifying goals against just 13 in friendlies.
Dempsey's play rises with the stakes but becoming a national team's all-time goal-scoring leader also requires something else: it means that the player remains one of his country's top two or three attackers for more than a decade. Dempsey has done that, too, an impressive testament to his ability but also perhaps a reflection of the shallowness in the American player pool.
How many promising forwards have come and gone, unable to grab a spot in the starting lineup? Dempsey's record is built on his ability, yes, but also on the collective failure of the U.S. attacking corps.
Until now, mind you. The emergence of Christian Pulisic creates a bit of a conundrum since both he and Dempsey like to operate in the same space in the middle of the field. They can combine beautifully, as they did during a 6-0 destruction of overmatched Honduras in March, but more often than not, the two struggle to space themselves correctly. They can become redundant pieces. And it's Dempsey, never the fastest player and now a bit slower with age, who loses out.
In the 52nd minute of the 2-0 qualifier with Trinidad and Tobago on June 9, DeAndre Yedlin crossed a ball into the box. Dempsey slid to reach it, the kind of classic scrappy play he has scored on so many times before. Except Pulisic was quicker, inside Dempsey and already sliding, already putting the ball into the back of the net. As Pulisic popped up and sprinted to the end line to celebrate with a knee slide, Dempsey rose and slowly jogged toward his teammate.
It was a small, but telling moment. It felt like a passing of the torch at the time, and still does six weeks later. The pair can play together and do so successfully. But if Bruce Arena has to pick one, for the first time in more than a decade, Dempsey won't win.
Against Costa Rica on Saturday, the Texas forward started the game on the bench, an unusual position for him. The goal he would score was only the second one he has notched as a sub because when he has been healthy, he has been a starter for three consecutive American coaches. But just three days after going 90 draining minutes in a match against El Salvador, Arena decided to put the longtime talisman on the bench, planning to insert him if the U.S. needed late-game magic. They did, and Dempsey, to no one's surprise, delivered.
Before Dempsey scored the clinching goal, he set up Jozy Altidore's opener with a lovely spin move followed by a perfect pass. While "super sub" is sort of an insulting term for someone with Dempsey's prolific resume, it fits.
What a luxury it is for Arena to hand the keys to Pulisic, already high up on the list of most dynamic American attackers ever, at the beginning of the game while keeping another man on that short list in reserve. Dempsey should start some games and will continue to do so, but he also understands what a weapon he can be with fresh legs in the last 20-25 minutes.
"Bruce told me that he knew the game was going to be tight and the second half it would open up," Dempsey said after Saturday's 2-0 semifinal win over Los Ticos. "He thought I could be someone to come on and make a difference, and he was right. When I went out there I just tried to play with confidence, tried to move the ball forward, create for others and create for myself and got into good spots tonight."
Fast forward 11 months and that quote could easily come after a 2018 World Cup group stage match. While Dempsey might not be at the height of his powers anymore, he's far from done. He has a role to play, and one that's larger than it might seem. He was always going to write his own final chapter.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.