Clint Dempsey’s right knee buckled at Blackburn last Jan. 17, and American soccer fans spent two days worrying. He was one of the few who wasn’t anguished.
"I knew something was wrong, but personally I didn’t feel like it was going to be something that was going to keep me out of the World Cup or cause me to miss the rest of the season," he said Thursday.
"I was out longer than I wanted to be, 7 1/2 weeks, but I was able to bounce back and finish the season strong." Dempsey returned to the national team last weekend, getting the go-ahead goal in a 2-1 exhibition win over Turkey.
He was the only American to score at the 2006 World Cup and is counted on along with Landon Donovan to provide the offensive spark for the U.S. at this year’s tournament.
Yet, some American soccer fans feel he doesn’t do as much for the national team as he does for Fulham. That small London club often times has held its own against the big boys of the English Premier League, and even Europe, over the past two seasons.
The 27-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, scored nine goals this season for the Cottagers after netting eight in 2008-09 and six the previous season, his first full year with Fulham.
Huge goals, too, that have helped fill Craven Cottage, the team’s small southwest London grounds along the Thames, with screaming fans ready to take on London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.
He scored against Liverpool in May 2007 to pretty much ensure Fulham wouldn’t be relegated. He had two goals in a 2-2 tie against Chelsea in December 2008.
And his cheeky 20-yard chip in March capped a comeback from a three-goal aggregate deficit against Juventus, putting Fulham in the Europa League quarter-finals.
The Cottagers reached a major final for only the second time in their 131-year history, and Dempsey became the first American to play in a European club final, only to lose to Atletico Madrid 2-1 in overtime.
Not enough, say some of the increasingly demanding U.S. fans, some of whom expect a goal-a-game performance minimum from the D&D boys.
"Whether it’s club or national team, if you’re a good player, a lot is expected," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "Then at the end of every game there will be all sorts of thoughts in terms of well how that person played. And it goes with the territory.
"As a player you have to be above all that. That part of it, that outcry, you’ve got to have a confidence in who you are. You’ve got to have a sense as to what you bring to your team. And, you know, it’s normal. It’s there in all sports.
"So, you know, I think Clint’s an important player for us and therefore at times, you know, he gets put under the spotlight."
With 18 goals in 61 international appearances, Dempsey is second only to Donovan among current American players. He has the versatility to play either as a left midfielder or a forward. When Bobby Zamora’s Achilles’ tendon started hurting late in the season, Fulham manager Roy Hodgson used Dempsey as a target man.
"He’s a player that I’ve seen a great improvement in, both in terms of his tactical awareness, his work ethic and, you know, he’s a good character," Hodgson said.
With a tattooed left arm and "onion ring" eyes, in the words of American teammate Jose Torres, Dempsey cuts a striking presence. With a few days’ growth of facial hair, the eyes stick out even more, looking as if he hasn’t slept for quite some time.
Dempsey’s chip against Juventus was voted Fulham’s goal of the season. The club sold commemorative T-shirts that read: "Dempsey Chip/82 minutes/Fightback Completed."
Bradley was in the stands that day in London, just Dempsey’s third game back from the knee injury. He loves Dempsey for his unpredictability, a willingness to try shots that others wouldn’t think to attempt.
"Nine times out of 10 it won’t make it, but you’ve got to take a risk," Dempsey said.
Peeved at attention
He had been a little peeved about all the attention the injury got. Hodgson had caused concern when he said he feared Dempsey injured a posterior cruciate ligament.
"When they ask managers after the game questions, there in the heat of the moment they say things that they probably shouldn’t have said," was Dempsey’s assessment. "I think you need to get MRId, you need to fully assess an injury before you put it out there."
Last year, he was given the Bronze Ball as the third best player at the Confederations Cup after scoring against Egypt, Spain and Brazil. He had five goals in qualifying for this year’s World Cup.
He cites all that as proof criticism is unfair.
"I don’t know what more you all want me to do."
Now, if he can just score another goal in the World Cup. His goal against Ghana was the highlight of his career.
"That was a dream come true. There’s nothing to me that will ever take that away. That was the best one in my life. That was the most important one," he said.
Why not the goal against Juventus, one that surely is more memorable for his supporters in London?
"Because it wasn’t always my dream to play for Fulham and score a goal for them," he said. "It was always my dream to play in the World Cup and score a goal. As a little kid that’s something I never knew that was going to be possible, but I always dreamed out. And to actually like realize a dream, that’s the best thing on this Earth."