FOXBOROUGH -- The American soccer system has produced perfectly competent defenders and goalkeepers, some attack-minded midfielders, but few creators or pure goal scorers. This has resulted in a competitive national team and a credible, no-frills professional league. But the system has not recently created enough high-level players for the game to make a qualitative leap, players who demand attention for their creativeness and personality.
The Revolution's Clint "Deuce" Dempsey could be a harbinger of change.
Others groomed in the country's youth soccer development programs have been as career-driven, imaginative, physical, and technical as Dempsey. But few have maximized those qualities to the extent they have grown past Major League Soccer's limits, as Dempsey appears to be doing.
Dempsey is on top of his game as the Revolution prepare for their playoff opener against the Chicago Fire tomorrow in Bridgeview, Ill. But the fact that Dempsey is moving beyond the league in terms of ability and ambition means he could be playing his last home game for the Revolution in Game 2 of the playoffs next Saturday.
"Ideally, I want to go out on a good note in the MLS Cup," said Dempsey, who is attempting to negotiate a transfer to a European team. "I will go out and execute and do the best I can and it will end like it ends. Then, I'll start looking to the future.
"We want to find our form and be playing our best now. We need to go out and get the job done, and the first step is Chicago."
Performing a stepover with the ball is among soccer's parlor tricks. To the spectator, it seems as if nothing has been accomplished. The ball has not changed direction, and the player in possession -- after having basically performed nothing more than a quick dance -- often winds up almost exactly where he began. The defender, also, has often been frozen in his tracks; and this is just the point of the move. It has caused the defensive player to doubt, to hesitate, maybe lose his balance. Everything happens very quickly. Dempsey often performs this maneuver at high speed, and not just once. Driving through the midfield, Dempsey will often perform four or five stepovers in succession, leaving defenders in a quandary. This does not always result in a goal, but like many other Dempsey creations and copies (such as the Cuauhtemiña, a hop-step and flip of the ball named after Mexican striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco), leaves a lasting impression on the opposition and spectators.
The stepover, though, is not often encouraged by coaches. It is something that must be performed selectively to be effective. Unless a coach has used the move to great effect or has been victimized by it, he is not likely to appreciate it.
"Any coach worth his salt shouldn't discourage a player from expressing himself," said Revolution coach Steve Nicol. "A player shouldn't be doing those moves on the top of [his penalty area] but you need to give them freedom, especially in the final third. There, you do the stuff you do that makes you a good player, show them what you've got.
"When you make those moves you are playing with the [defensive player's] head, you are finding a way to get by them. And that is something that keeps them from diving into you."
Nicol has unleashed Dempsey this season, supporting him with two defensive midfielders and allowing him to find space to attack almost at will.
"Certainly, in the last year, he has learned when and when not to use that stuff," Nicol said. "It's a part of growing and getting experience. He overdid it at times last year and he did it in the wrong places but he has learned and he is still learning.
"He has that wee edge. He hates to get beat. Everything means something to him, all the time. It's about putting that together."
There is a balance between playfulness and seriousness. Too playful will be ineffective. Too serious will produce a predictable, robotic style, also ineffective.
"Anything I do, I do for a purpose," said Dempsey, whose nickname, and recording name [he has performed rap music] derives from his jersey No. 2. "I don't do it just to do it. There are certain positions on the field where you can do things. I do them to better my team's chance to win the game. You have to make sure you are doing it with a purpose. You see what the opponent gives you and react. You try to make him do something, set him up for certain things. It's trial and error, you have to find yourself and what your role is, what you can and can't do. I've gotten better and better at that, and that's what experience is, it teaches you what you can do and when to do it.
"Not all coaches give you the freedom to play. But you have to do the simple things right, get the basics down. Once you do that, you can have more freedom to try things."
Dempsey knows when it is time to be all business.
In the World Cup, Dempsey was at his best, running at defenders and simply beating them on skill and speed. Dempsey used his moves in creating problems for Italy in the US's 1-1 tie in Kaiserslautern; there were enough stepovers and an incisive shot barely wide in the early going for the Italians to realize they should not leave Dempsey by himself. And Dempsey became the only US scorer of the tournament in a 2-1 loss to Ghana in Nuremberg.
In those matches, Dempsey gave a clinic in running at the defense, forcing the opposition to commit, causing potential breakdowns, earning free kicks. Dempsey does not choreograph situations as a pure passing midfielder, but rather initiates the action as an advanced midfielder or striker, then barrels into opportunistic scoring positions.
Dempsey returned from Germany to spark the Revolution on a midseason run, slumped briefly partially because of two suspensions for conflicts with opposing players, and has been on a late-season tear as the Revolution take a seven-match (5-0-2) unbeaten streak into the playoffs. Dempsey has four goals and an assist in the stretch.
"It all adds up to individual battles," said Dempsey. "It's going to be Matt Reis making saves, defenders making clearances off the line, midfielders winning 50-50 challenges, counterattacks. Whoever wins those individual battles wins."
Doubtless, Dempsey will be dedicated and highly focused in the playoffs. But that will be difficult to detect watching him in pregame warmups. That is when Dempsey opens the bag of tricks, his way of loosening up.
"What I am doing is getting confident with the ball," Dempsey said of his pregame ritual. "I work on those little touches to help me keep possession during the game for my team."
Dempsey has the playground moves down and he switches very quickly into battle mode.
"I am a simple man," Dempsey said. "The fun part is challenging and competing, having everything on the line. I like to be fit and active and be outside. That is an element that is very important to me. Anything is better than being cooped up in an office.
"In a sense, it's about being a kid and playing a game. That's the fun part. But it's also about being competitive; and I hate to lose -- ask anybody on the team, anybody who knows me. I can't say that's a good thing or a bad thing but being competitive helps to be a good player."
Joe Franchino missed yesterday's practice because of a family issue. Nicol was ill and also absent for the workout, which was run by assistant Paul Mariner.
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.