Dempsey, the Sounders and USMNT forward, takes slights against his play and turns them into goals. He is six goals short the national-team record as the U.S. meets Ecuador on Thursday at CenturyLink Field.
Clint Dempsey’s eyes have always been uncommonly expressive, nearly as adept at driving home a point as the prominent veins in his neck.
Dempsey’s eyes are what hold your attention as the camera pans down the line of United States players singing the national anthem ahead of their Copa America matchup against Costa Rica. Sounders teammate and moonlighting Fox Sports analyst Herculez Gomez noticed them, too.
“That’s his ‘(expletive) you’ face,” Gomez said. “That’s Clint.”
U.S. vs. Ecuador, 6:30 p.m.
Copa America: USA-EcuadorTime: 6:30 p.m. PDT Thursday
Location: CenturyLink Field, Seattle
TV: Fox Sports 1, Univision Deportes
Stream: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2Go
That, without question, is Clint. At 33 years old, Dempsey retains the defiant sneer of cocky youth. Accomplishments with club and country have done little to diminish the sizable chip on his shoulder. He still collects slights and feeds off them.
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And yet, ahead of Thursday’s Copa America Centenario quarterfinal against Ecuador at his club’s home stadium, it’s fair to ask: What else is left?
What else is there to achieve? And, relevant to the Sounders and USMNT alike, what remains of Dempsey’s skill set beyond the grit and gristle that have defined his contributions during this Copa?
The U.S.’s second goal of that must-win Costa Rica game was telling.
Dempsey, having already scored his 50th career international goal via an early penalty kick, ran at the Costa Rican back line with a head of steam. He crossed one defender over with a behind-the-back dribble. He pushed the ball past another and into a pocket of space — but outside of his own control.
Teammate Jermaine Jones, sweeping in from the left, got the goal and the glory. Dempsey was officially credited with an assist, but that was probably generous. He was looking for his own shot, not trying to set up somebody else’s. His creativity is still there, but his age sometimes shows itself in an inability to pull those tricks off.
From the very beginning of his national-team career, Dempsey played with uncommon flair. He has credited the prominently Mexican rec leagues of his Texas youth, says he was influenced by the same South American championship he’s competing in now. His was a game of flicks and chips, taking impulsive shots from angles few would dare.
He’s got less control of his own magic now, like he’s gripping a faulty Roman candle that could blow off his hand at any moment. But every so often, intervals determined by mood and form, fireworks will still light up the night sky.
On the national team as with the Sounders, Dempsey’s preferred position is in the center forward spot of a 4-3-3 formation. It’s a role that highlights his best attributes, close enough to goal to maintain a steady threat with the freedom to drop deep and connect with the midfield.
On both teams, however, it forces the rest of the front line out of position — Gyasi Zardes is to the USMNT what Jordan Morris is to Seattle. After the 2-0 loss to Colombia in the tournament opener, some even dared whisper that Dempsey should be benched.
Dempsey responded to the critics as he always has, with goals and results, punctuating those strikes with cathartic screams. His group-winning goal against Paraguay was career No. 51, six back of Landon Donovan’s national team record.
Donovan was so often the yin to Dempsey’s yang, teammates whose accomplishments were too often pitted side by side.
If you’re digging for the origin story of Dempsey’s me-against-the-world thing, start here: While Donovan was part of U.S. Soccer’s inaugural residency program in Bradenton, Fla., Dempsey’s family was driving him more than 150 miles one way from Nacogdoches to Dallas to find a competitive game.
“I’m just somebody that’s always hungry,” Dempsey has said in a statement as introspective as he gets. “I’ve had to work for everything I’ve got.”
Dempsey has outlasted Donovan — the latter sacrificed on Jurgen Klinsmann’s altar of No Player Is Safe — and there’s no doubt he’d love to leapfrog his former antagonist on the all-time scoring list.
Dempsey’s career, though, is unlikely to be captured by numbers. Headlining a run to the Copa America Centenario championship would jump to the top of his list of career achievements, but he doesn’t need further validation.
On his day, Dempsey has always been still as close to a force of nature as any American player of his generation. He’s already on the short list of all-time USMNT greats.
Pay close attention during the national anthem on Thursday night as the camera pans down the line until it reaches a scowling Dempsey.
That’s Clint, and that look Gomez so eloquently described is his answer to those questions listed above.