This is Clint Dempsey’s World Cup.
It’s his World Cup to start the event properly, with a goal 29 seconds into the United States’ opening match against Ghana, the sixth-fastest goal in the tournament’s history. It’s his World Cup to get kicked in the face, break his nose, cough up blood and then go out in the next game and score again. It’s his World Cup to make history — first American to score in three different World Cups — and if you think the U.S. men’s national team can’t recover from its “unlucky draw” against Portugal on Sunday, then you’re underestimating the leadership and willpower of the team’s greatest player.
It’s hard to know what to admire more about Dempsey: his skill or his toughness? He’s a rare combination of grace and grit. He’s a star who can make a team believe it’s never out of contention. His stoicism only adds to his aura. And somehow, he also possesses swagger despite his understated manner.
Oh, and then there’s this: He’s yours, Seattle. Sure, he’s a Texan, but in about five weeks, you can celebrate the one-year anniversary of Dempsey joining Sounders FC. And when you look at Dempsey now and think about the hype that accompanied his arrival in Seattle last August, the fuss makes sense.
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It was a grand entrance, for sure. Remember how he was introduced in a prematch ceremony before 39,360 fans at CenturyLink Field? Remember how he took off his jacket and revealed a green No. 2 Sounders jersey, making the crowd go crazy?
You had to wonder if Dempsey, who had just turned 30, could live up to such billing. But after joining the team near the end of last season and needing some time to adjust his training and get his body clock synchronized with the Major League Soccer schedule, Dempsey has been brilliant. In this World Cup, his game is translating to superb performances.
Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer says that, while the international stage magnifies Dempsey’s greatness, what you’re seeing is simply the consistent, excellent player he is.
“A lot of those traits are traits that Clint has displayed over the course of his entire career,” Hanauer said. “He’s evolved and matured and added nuance and sophistication to his game.”
Dempsey, now 31, was having an incredible season with the Sounders before the World Cup began. With Dempsey and Obafemi Martins tied for the team lead with eight goals, the Sounders have compiled a 10-3-2 record. Their 32 points are seven ahead of the next-closest team, giving the franchise an excellent chance to earn its first Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular-season record). The Sounders are the highest-scoring team in the league. If they stay healthy and the World Cup interruption doesn’t throw them off too much, this could be the MLS Cup championship team we’ve expected since the team’s inaugural season in 2009.
It’s more than just Dempsey, of course. The Sounders are a fairly complete squad playing with great purpose and chemistry. But Dempsey is their superstar, and he has lifted the franchise. His start to this MLS season, including the hat trick against Portland, alluded to the success he’s now enjoying on the sport’s biggest stage.
And maybe, with Dempsey at the top of his game, the United States will stay alive in this World Cup longer than expected.
If you’re the hysterical type, it was impossible not to be more red than white and blue Sunday after the U.S. turned victory (and a spot in the knockout round) into a draw against Portugal. It was an epic World Cup match that came down to the final seconds. Unfortunately, a 2-1 victory became a 2-2 tie in the 95th minute. It was easy to be conflicted, or frustrated, or possibly angry.
Dempsey’s reaction? He limped off the field, the victim of a hard tackle, a fresh injury to go with the broken nose he suffered against Ghana. And then he basically shrugged it all off — the pain and the late-game disappointment.
“It’s tough, but it’s just the way it goes,” Dempsey told reporters in Brazil. “We’re Americans. I think we like to do things the hard way.”
Spoken like an honest team captain who is preparing himself mentally for the grind. If getting kicked in the face isn’t going to faze Dempsey, then he can handle a tough result.
“Those are the kind of qualities that world-class players exhibit,” Hanauer said. “They’re not going to be knocked down by an injury like that, intimidated by something like that. They’re not going to let it affect their game. It’s just added motivation.”
The U.S. needs to at least tie Germany on Thursday to advance to the knockout round without any extra help. For an American squad that has already played two epic matches and will be without Jozy Altidore once again, it’s another challenge.
But with Dempsey as their striker, you can expect them to play well. This is his World Cup, after all.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer