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World stage

Low-profile Dempsey has undergone an evolution since his Revolution days

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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During the World Cup in Germany four years ago, Clint Dempsey scored a goal that vaulted him toward international recognition. Dempsey converted with a precise, low-driven shot off a DaMarcus Beasley pass to become the only US goal scorer in the tournament, tying the score against Ghana in Nuremberg.

The US was eliminated from the tournament after losing that game, 2-1, and Dempsey would return to the Revolution for the final months of the 2006 MLS season. Those would be some of the last days of Dempsey’s anonymous off-field lifestyle, when he would take off to go bass fishing with teammate Steve Ralston or order tacos at his favorite Mexican restaurant in Mansfield with his brother, Ryan, and friends.

Now, Dempsey has established himself with Fulham FC of England’s Premier League and is being promoted as one of the key performers for the US as it prepares for its World Cup opener against England in Rustenburg, South Africa, Saturday. Dempsey still prefers to maintain a low profile, but if he plays well and the US advances, he could be thrust to another level of celebrity.

“There was a level of awareness after the 2006 World Cup,’’ said Brad Feldman, supervising producer and play-by-play commentator for Revolution broadcasts. “But now, in any other country but the US, if he goes out on the streets, he could get mobbed. He’s a star for a Premier League team and a known figure in the World Cup.’’

But as driven and talented as Dempsey is, he was not considered a sure-thing professional before joining the Revolution in 2004. Part of the reason was his ultra-competitive attitude and uninhibited style of play, a combination that seemed to confound the talent evaluators. In fact, FC Dallas, which Dempsey considered to be his hometown team, passed him up twice during the MLS draft, apparently not convinced by his work when he trained with the team.

Other MLS teams were passing on Dempsey, too, possibly influenced by FC Dallas’s inaction on him. If the team that should know him best was not going for Dempsey, why should anyone else draft him?

That left the door open for the Revolution. John Murphy, who did much of the Revolution’s scouting when he was an assistant coach, had recommended Dempsey for the draft. And coach Steve Nicol called a former Revolution coach, Thomas Rongen, who had Dempsey on the US Under-20 national team. Rongen also promoted Dempsey and later said Nicol was the only MLS coach to make that call.

So when Dempsey showed up in Foxborough, he was considered just another youngster who might see some action as a backup defensive midfielder. But after a few days of training in the fieldhouse, Revolution coaches and players realized they were seeing something other than a generic though very athletic midfielder.

Showing his stuff
A few weeks later, Nicol’s hopes were confirmed, as the Revolution started playing preseason games in the Azores. On a rain-soaked field in Sao Miguel, against the hardened professionals of Uniao Micaelense, Dempsey held up physically and technically in a 1-0 victory.

“You could see he had a little bit of an edge,’’ former Revolution assistant coach Pete Simonini said. “By that I mean he was confident, he could shoot with both feet, take people on, play under pressure. And that’s what you need.

“You never know how players are going to turn out, but Stevie is good at picking out players. I’m sure nobody rated Michael Parkhurst, either, but as Stevie said, ‘Those guys are footballers.’

“That time in the Azores, Dempsey played various positions and he could hold the ball, he was able to lay it off to people, and make good decisions with the ball. Sometimes he held it a little too long because he was trying certain things, instead of playing simple.

“But he was tough as nails. He took a beating over there against [Micaelense] and Santa Clara — they were tough, and it wasn’t exactly 70-degree, sunny weather, but it was good competition.

“After that, the coaches said he was going to play. It was just a question of where the team needed him.’’

Dempsey played as if he had something to prove. And that he could do things with the ball that few others were capable of or willing to try. Dempsey was going to impose his will on the game, even if he was one of the youngest players on the field.

“We played a lot of pickup games, and in the area we’re from, the score matters, but making somebody look bad matters a lot more,’’ said Allen Ramsey, who grew up with Dempsey in Nacogdoches, Texas. “In that part of Texas, everything is competitive, and what really matters is winning and losing every time you touch the ball.

“Clint was always trying things, he was out in the front yard every day, and every time he would see you, he would say, ‘I got a new move.’

“A lot of it was watching [Diego] Maradona. Also, he was practicing with top-level teams in Dallas, and everyone was trying to stand out and look good. He did things that aren’t even named.

“I played against him in high school. Sometimes, he would start dancing, do some dance steps, and then go into a move. One time, he got me with what we call the ‘snake move,’ only he did it with his right foot but put the ball behind his left leg, and at speed.

“All you can do when he goes by you like that is turn around and laugh.’’

The entertainer
Dempsey was on the bench for the 2004 Revolution opener at Los Angeles. But he was in the lineup the next game and was a starter the rest of the season, sitting out only after being diagnosed with a broken jaw. Dempsey had played two games, barely eating or talking for nearly two weeks, before the injury was detected.

But as competitive as Dempsey was, he clearly enjoyed playing. He always had the presence of mind for a creative goal celebration. At RFK Stadium, he went to a place on the field where home plate was for baseball games and pantomimed hitting a home run. At Gillette Stadium, he took the tri-corner hat off a mascot and simulated firing a musket. At Pizza Hut Park in Dallas, he simply ran to the stands where his parents, Aubrey and Debbie, were sitting and kissed them.

Eight months after proving himself in the Azores, in November 2004, Dempsey made his US national team debut in a game against Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio. Two years later, he went to Fulham on a $4 million transfer.

“We would go bass fishing and he talked about going to Europe, and we joked about it,’’ Simonini said. “But he knew he was going to make it. And by Clint going there and doing his job and being consistent, I think it helps any future American guys going over there. Plus, he’s a great ambassador with the national team.

“The way he plays, the style he plays, it fits that English style. I’m sure he can play anywhere, but he’s excelled in that league because he’s a tough guy and he can score in many ways.

“I’m not surprised by Clint because he’s a hard worker and he’s got a good attitude. He might have been a little cocky, but there’s nothing wrong with that if you can back it up. If he stayed, he would have been one of the marquee guys in the MLS, like Taylor Twellman. But you have a chance to earn more money, you go over there.’’

Ready to lead
In Dempsey’s first season in England, he scored the deciding goal against Liverpool that allowed Fulham to remain in the Premiership, a result worth $60 million to the club. Last season, Dempsey hit the winning goal against Juventus as Fulham advanced to the finals of the Europa League, its best placing in a continental tournament.

“Most of us would kill to go to Rome and Paris and South America, but when Clint has time off, he wants to go home and go fishing,’’ said Ramsey, an editor for Goal.com. “I don’t want to say he doesn’t appreciate all the things he’s gotten to do and see, but his relaxation time, he’s a normal Texas kid — go fishing, get some Mexican food, maybe play some video games.

“He can still go fairly unnoticed in America but he can’t in London. That’s the good thing about Nacogdoches — people see him and they go up to talk to him but then they more or less leave him alone.

“It’s good to see him remain the same as he’s always been. There’s a misconception about him having gotten big-headed but he doesn’t ever come off that way.

“He’s the same guy, real down-to-earth. He doesn’t want to be the front man in the media. He’s passionate about the game and after that, he wants to hang out with family and friends; that’s the essence of Clint Dempsey right there.

“But now, he’s ready to take on the leadership role a little bit. He’s become the veteran guy, rather than the New England Revolution player just trying to make the World Cup squad.

“I think we’re in for him doing some things in the World Cup, just because of the mentality he brings to big games. It’s that clutch factor — he tends to pop up in good spots.

“I talked to him recently, and he said he’s looking to lead, he’s ready to leave his heart and soul on the field. And he’s not the kind of guy who says that too often, he’s not a rah-rah guy, he just leaves it all on the field.’’

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