Asked about his earliest World Cup memory, Clint Dempsey can recall the colorful images quite clearly. They came from a movie he watched as a kid in small-town East Texas.
“Hero: The Official Film of the 1986 FIFA World Cup.”
He remembers the key details, of course. The tournament was held in Mexico and won by Argentina, led by the legendary Diego Maradona, someone who would later have an integral influence on Dempsey’s vibrant, flashy style of play.
Most important, he remembers feeling a connection and comfort from watching thousands of soccer-crazed fans from every corner of the globe.
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“Here I am in Nacogdoches, Texas, where not many people are as passionate about the sport as I am,” said Dempsey, the Sounders FC star, “and then I’m looking on TV and seeing people from all over, from all these different countries that have the same passion that I do, and they’re willing their team on.
“That’s when I fell in love with it and wanted to one day be on that stage and represent my country. I mean, what could be more special than that?”
That special dream has been lived by a special player.
Dempsey’s third World Cup begins Thursday, and as captain of the U.S. national team, he will be called upon to guide an underdog American squad through a group that seems almost unfairly difficult. The 31-year-old will try to become the first player in U.S. soccer history to score in three World Cups. He will have a country, a club and a city here cheering him on.
This was exactly how it was supposed to play out when Dempsey made his stop-the-presses, multimillion-dollar transfer to Sounders FC in August. The plan was to get games, goals and confidence leading into the grand tournament.
“That was accomplished,” he said.
Now it’s time to make more memories.
“You have that feeling of trying to make the most of this,” Dempsey added, “because you don’t know when it will happen again and you want to do something special in your lifetime.”
Dempsey graces the cover of Sports Illustrated’s World Cup preview draped in the American flag while sporting a relaxed smirk. It’s about as wide a smile as you’re going to get from him in a choreographed moment.
“Captain America,” the caption reads.
The three other players featured on the SI covers are superstars Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Luis Suarez of Uruguay.
Fine company, but the spotlight comes with responsibility.
The captaincy was never on Dempsey’s mind as his importance in U.S. soccer grew, but the cover shoot and the captain’s armband are tangible signs the forward will have to play an integral role if the Americans are to find World Cup success — perhaps more than usual after the country-shaking exclusion of Landon Donovan from the final 23-man roster.
“Without question, I think this is more Dempsey’s team now than it was four years ago,” said Jeff Carlisle of ESPNFC.com. “I think that process started when Donovan was left off the roster for the World Cup qualifiers last summer, so it’s a role with which Dempsey is very comfortable now.
“Given Donovan’s exclusion, I think there is more responsibility on Dempsey now to be the guy to spark the attack. He’ll need to produce if the U.S. is to have any hope of getting out of the group.”
Not just any group. The Group of Death.
The opponents? Germany, the No. 2 ranked team in the world. Portugal, featuring the world’s best player: Ronaldo. Ghana, which eliminated the U.S. in the last two World Cups.
The travel? Most of any team at 8,866 miles, including one game deep in the hot, humid Amazon basin.
The task is so daunting that coach Jurgen Klinsmann has compared the pressure of the group-stage opener against Ghana to a World Cup final. America’s best will need to be at their best -— notably Dempsey, whose creativity and unpredictability highlight his unique skill-set.
“If we beat Ghana, mark my words, it will be Clint,” said Eric Wynalda, a Fox Soccer analyst and former U.S. international. “Nobody else.”
Wynalda, who retired in 2001, said not being able to play with Dempsey, whose talent he has long admired, is one of his great regrets.
“He makes everybody on the team look better,” Wynalda said. “Even when they hit a bad pass, he makes it look good. … In my opinion, if Clint’s on, we’re going to be fine.”
The Sounders have had their share of stars, but nothing like this. Not in a World Cup.
Kasey Keller and Sweden’s Freddie Ljungberg, for example, came to Seattle once their standout international careers were over. Switzerland’s Blaise Nkufo was signed before the 2010 World Cup but didn’t arrive until after the tournament.
This is new ground. So can it lead to new fans?
While the Sounders have led MLS in attendance every season since joining the league in 2009, Dempsey’s World Cup involvement could serve as an entry point for curious observers to a still-growing franchise.
Adrian Hanauer, part owner and general manager, said the team won’t actively set out to cherry-pick support off of its players’ World Cup participation. Having Dempsey and Seattle native DeAndre Yedlin on the U.S. roster, though, can have an impact as part of the club’s broader strategic plan: constantly improving the quality of the product, growing the profile of the brand locally and internationally, and continuing to build credibility.
“What it helps with is there are lots of soccer fans in this community and nationally that haven’t been converted yet to Sounders fans and MLS fans,” Hanauer said. “That is our objective for the near-term future, but it’s up to the fans whether they see Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin playing in the World Cup as enough to get them over the hump.
“We’re not going to be able to twist their arms into it, but the more good players we get, the more players we send to the World Cup, the more competitive we are in our league and internationally in CONCACAF, or just credibility wise, then we are going to convert fans.”
Another ancillary benefit to having a World Cup star is that talent attracts talent. The Sounders have a tested process for recruiting players, a system that emphasizes qualities like the supporter-driven atmosphere at CenturyLink Field and consistent on-field success. But Hanauer noted, “Players want to win championships, and they think they have a good chance with guys like (Dempsey) on the team.”
Seattle is in the market for a potential summer signing. Perhaps the first-place Sounders will send two players to Brazil and get three back.
Seattle will have a hometown favorite at the World Cup in Yedlin, though it’s uncertain how much the promising 20-year-old will play.
The question is: Can such an established star like Dempsey serve as a meaningful representative for the area having only been here for 10 months of an 11-year career?
The Sounders think so.
Sigi Schmid has seen high-profile signings come to a new team with no regard for investing in the community. He said that hasn’t been the case with Dempsey. This isn’t a hired hand who came to Seattle for World Cup preparation and then tuned out.
“Clint’s here — lock, stock and barrel,” Schmid said. “He’s our guy. He’s committed to our team and he’s committed to the city. He enjoys it here, likes what the city has to offer and he’s committed to our club.
“Some guys can be with a club for five, six years and they’re not truly committed. Other guys, they wear their heart on their sleeve, and that’s the way Clint is. He made his commitment to Seattle when he signed, and he’s locked in.”
That commitment is through the 2016 season. So while the World Cup was always at the forefront of Dempsey’s move to the Sounders, he’s here to stay whether the national team crashes out in the group stage or, against all odds, returns with the trophy.
That commitment has also been seen throughout an especially eventful 10 months, which have featured some of the most frustrating lows and some of the most thrilling highs, both individually and as a team.
“He’s already establishing some roots,” assistant coach Brian Schmetzer said. “He certainly has the ability to be a good representative of Seattle because he’s a humble young man and his feet are on the ground.”
Dempsey may always be a Texas boy at heart, but he’ll still be thinking about his new home the next several weeks, even while living out his childhood dream in Brazil.
“I’ll be focused on the World Cup,” he said. “But at the same time I’ll be rooting the Sounders on and wish them the best — rooting for them to get as many points as possible.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184
On Twitter @joshuamayers