A year ago, Clint Dempsey was a potentially viable reserve for the Revolution. Now he is not only a certain starter, but has also become a factor on the US national soccer team.
Dempsey made his US debut in a 1-1 tie with Jamaica Nov. 17 in Columbus, after the US had clinched a berth in the final round of World Cup qualifying. Last Wednesday, he relieved Pablo Mastroeni in the 65th minute of a 2-1 win over Trinidad & Tobago. That victory vaulted the US into a tie for the lead with Mexico in the six-team group and established it as a favorite to progress to the Germany 2006 finals.
In the Jamaica match, Dempsey replaced Ramiro Corrales, playing an attacking role in midfield, and nearly scored on a late breakaway. Against Trinidad & Tobago, he retreated into defense as the US protected the lead. Dempsey's ability to perform in both defensive and offensive roles makes him valuable to the national team, which starts training next week in preparation for friendly matches against Colombia in Fullerton, Calif., March 9 and Honduras in Albuquerque March 19, then qualifiers at Mexico March 27 and against Guatemala in Birmingham, Ala., March 30.
"I haven't gotten significant minutes yet, and only time will tell if I fit into the team," said Dempsey after practicing with the Revolution at an indoor facility in Norfolk yesterday. "It's too early to tell. I need to go to more camps and get more caps, but it is my goal to fit in and be on the World Cup team. That's been my dream, and it's the biggest thing you can accomplish.
"What helps me is that I am versatile, and that allows me to play a number of positions. The coach [Bruce Arena] told me to sit back and not get forward, there was no need to get forward, against Trinidad."
Dempsey said his mistake in reading the US defenders allowed forward Dwight Yorke to break through late in the match, but Dempsey recovered to halt Yorke's advance just inside the penalty area.
Dempsey, 22, and Eddie Johnson, 21, who scored the first goal, were the two youngest US players on the field.
"It was one of the biggest crowds I've played in front of and it was a great atmosphere," Dempsey said.
Dempsey could be looking at a grueling schedule, with pressure-filled international matches mixed with a 32-game Major League Soccer schedule, plus playoffs.
"We are not happy losing Clint, but it shows the progress he has made, and everyone is delighted to see him with the US team," said Revolution coach Steve Nicol. "Everyone can take pride in having helped him achieve that."
Johnson has scored six goals in four games for the US. But scoring has been much more difficult in MLS; he led the league with only 12 goals last season, the lowest total for a scoring leader in the league's history.
"Defenders have gotten better and teams are set up better tactically," said Revolution assistant coach Paul Mariner, a starting forward for England in the 1980s. "Plus, scoring goals is one of the most difficult things in the game. It is a multitude of things -- service coming in and people being in finishing position. The most difficult place on the field for a defender is the corner of the penalty area at the byline, and teams are making it difficult for the [offensive] team to get there."
Mariner rated Johnson's header off a Steve Cherundolo cross for a 30th-minute goal against Trinidad & Tobago among the most impressive he has witnessed.
"That was as good a goal as you are going to see," Mariner said. "He creates goals for himself, he is very good upstairs, has decent feet, is a well-rounded player, and he is athletic. But he needs service to score."
The Revolution have scheduled six preseason matches in Bermuda and Ecuador. Games are set against a Bermuda Select team March 1, the Bermuda national team March 3, Deportivo Quevedo March 15, El Nacional March 17, Club Sport Emelec March 22, and Barcelona Sporting Club March 24. The Revolution will be based in Guayaquil from March 11-25. "They have all the elements we need -- competition, land arrangements, accommodations, excellent food, good facilities for practicing," said Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg. "It is a good environment for the team to stay together and concentrate on soccer with a sense of privacy, yet with access to the population, a few minutes from downtown. We will have a chance to see players that are realistic MLSers, and have access to other South American players who can be brought in for a look. It is what the coaching staff is looking for." . . . The early-season MLS schedule could be in the Revolution's favor for the first time, as they have four home games among their first six matches.