The puffy knot that obscured Clint Dempsey’s left eye is almost gone, the bruise below fading to a technicolor blend of purples, blues and yellows.
The nasty-looking souvenir from Fulham’s game against West Ham last Saturday would have sent most people to the sidelines immediately. Not Dempsey, who not only kept playing after taking an elbow to the eye, he went on to score for Fulham in the 1-1 draw.
Whether playing for club or country, Dempsey is going to do whatever it takes to stay on the field.
“I worked so hard to get into the lineup that I wasn’t going to let something keep me out because everybody’s waiting for their chance to play,” he said. “It’s so difficult to break into that starting lineup. Once you do, you’ve got to make sure you stay there.”
This season at Fulham, with Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele injured, that’s meant moving up to forward from his natural midfield position. He’s also listed as a forward for the U.S. exhibition against Poland on Saturday night – Dempsey’s first game with the national team since the World Cup.
While a shift of a few yards might not seem like that big a deal, it turns Dempsey around and forces him to play a different style. Midfielders play with the goal in front of them, always looking ahead so they get the best view of the action and know where to direct the ball. Or, if no play is available up top, to take the ball back and keep possession alive.
Forwards usually play with their backs to the goal until they get the ball, then have to make the turn. If there’s no play to make, they have to pivot again to send the ball back to the midfield. Oh, and be able to mix it up with defenders who are constantly pushing, shoving and doing whatever they can to knock you off your feet.
Think playing offensive line in American football, then switching to wide receiver.
“It’s difficult to play because it’s not a position I played most of my career,” Dempsey said. “I like facing players and going out on them as opposed to having my back to the goal and trying to hold off defenders.”
But if new Fulham manager Mark Hughes wants Dempsey to play forward, he’ll do it.
“Whatever position he puts me at, I just try to listen as much as I can to try and learn the position and do what they’re telling me to do so that I can continue to get minutes,” he said. “Because beggars can’t be choosers. They can’t put you in position and then you complain about it, because then you’ll be on the bench. And where are you then?”
Besides, no matter where Dempsey plays, he has a knack for making things happen.
He’s tied for the Fulham lead with three goals this year, scoring twice in seven Premier League appearances and adding another in League Cup play. In his four-plus seasons at Craven Cottage, he has 27 goals, 23 in EPL games.
But it’s the timing of some of those goals that have so endeared him to fans of the London club. His goal against Liverpool in May 2007 all but ensured Fulham would not be relegated. After returning from a knee injury last spring, he had one of those rub your eyes and race for the remote goals (go ahead, YouTube it) with a 20-yard chip shot that capped Fulham’s comeback from a three-goal aggregate deficit against Juventus.
The 4-1 win put Fulham in the Europa League quarterfinals, and the Cottagers went on to reach a major final for only the second time in their 131-year history. Dempsey became the first American to play in a European club final – only to lose to Atletico Madrid 2-1 in overtime.
Dempsey has been equally dangerous for the United States. It was his 25-yard shot that England goalkeeper Robert Green fumbled, allowing the U.S. to tie mighty England in the teams’ first game at the World Cup in South Africa. The Americans would go on to win their group for the first time in 80 years before losing to Ghana in overtime in the second round.
Dempsey beat Green again with his goal against the Hammers last Saturday.
He was the only American to score at the 2006 World Cup, and was given the Bronze Ball as the third best player at the Confederations Cup after scoring in consecutive games against Egypt, Spain and Brazil. With 19 goals in 66 international appearances, Dempsey is second only to Landon Donovan among current players.
“The bottom line is Clint is an important player in terms of being a little bit different in his ability to maybe make a chance for himself or a teammate,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “He can come up with a play that can produce the unexpected, and make it count for something big, for a goal.
“Those,” Bradley added, “are special qualities.”
With the Los Angeles Galaxy trying to hang on to the top spot in the Western Conference, Donovan will miss the U.S. game Saturday, as well as the exhibition against Colombia on Tuesday in Chester, Pa. That means the Americans will rely even greater on Dempsey.
Black eye and all.
“I feel good coming into this game,” Dempsey said. “I’m excited to play for my country and do the best I can do.”