Clint Dempsey, the fourth of five born to a family of humble means in the small east Texas town of Nacogdoches, is the key to American success in the world's game.
Establishing himself overseas in a way that has proven difficult for USA players past and present, the tireless Dempsey has the ability to inspire his team-mates, to turn on the fans and to turn an American team, known primarily for rough and ready endeavour, into something more, something a bit special.
It is instructive to note who Dempsey's hero was when he was a young boy. The son of a carpenter father who drove him six hours twice a week from the family trailer to training, the American attacker grew up idolising Diego Maradona, the incomparable Argentinian who famously overcome abject poverty to become the toast of the football world. "He was amazing," the 27-year-old told FIFA.com. "I used to watch a video called 'Hero' over and over. I wore the tape down. The things he could do with the ball were just so amazing. It just made me fall in love with soccer."
Ambitious and ever eager, Dempsey seems to have taken the spirit of El Diego – coach of Argentina here in South Africa – to his heart. Willing to spurn the mundane in favour of the audacious, the striker-cum-midfielder offers the American national team qualities it has often been accused of lacking: spontaneity, improvisation and audacity.
If occasionally frustrating when he tries to do too much on his own, it is that very same impulse that makes him capable of pulling off the seemingly impossible. He proved as much when, against Juventus this past season with his club side Fulham, he spurned the myriad options open to him to chip a marvellous goal that had the football world, and the internet, buzzing. It proved the winner in a memorable comeback that proved one of the highlights of Fulham's fairytale ride to the final of the UEFA Europa League.
Dempsey’s nine goals in 27 starts for the Cottagers this term, under admiring boss Roy Hodgson, was an impressive haul considering the American was out for nearly two months with a knee injury, which at first looked to threaten his participation here in South Africa. Full of fight and graft – a hallmark of seemingly every member of Bob Bradley's current crop of Stars and Stripes – Clint fought his way back to fitness to figure heavily in Fulham's historic season.
"It's three good seasons in a row for me at Fulham, so I'm feeling pretty good at the moment," he said after USA's impressive 3-1 friendly win over Australia near Johannesburg on Saturday. "I wouldn't say I'm the heart and soul of the [US] team, but I do play with a lot of heart and every time I go out on the field I do all I can to help get that win."
Dempsey's is an individual spirit, as evidenced by his sideline as aspiring hip-hop artist, Deuce. "I think the rhythms are the same," Dempsey confided, drawing a line between the ebbs and flows of a song and those ever rising and falling rhythms out on the football pitch. "Every game has a rhythm, like every song has a rhythm. The two are definitely connected." He is no effete artist, though. Dempsey has a hunger for the fight, and a snarl and bite to match. As games get hotter, he gets better. And when his side are underestimated – as they were last year in this very same African nation en route to the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup – Dempsey's esprit de corps bubbles over.
"We work hard as a team – we always do. We don't get much respect," he said last year after an astounding semi-final win against European champions Spain, visibly moved by the bond with his comrades. "A lot of guys in this team fight and scratch to get contracts overseas and they grind through it trying to get respect and some playing time. It's not easy. So when we're together, we fight together and we all believe we can do big things."
Ambition is not lacking in Dempsey, it never has been. Named best new player in his first season in Major League Soccer, where he was beloved by fans of Boston-based New England Revolution, it took him only two years to be voted best American player, an award he received in 2006 after scoring the only goal in a disappointing group stage exit from Germany 2006. The truck Dempsey received for winning the prize went straight to his old man, Aubrey, the tradesman who sacrificed so much when he was a boy. "His was a little beat up," said Dempsey.
After the disappointments of the 2006 finals, which the player describes as a "rollercoaster" and the joys of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup, where in a free attacking role he proved a true hero of the US cause, Dempsey is hoping for a banner 2010. "We finished top of our qualifying group, we went to the final of the Gold Cup and the final of the Confederations Cup last year, so there's no reason we can't expect things in South Africa," he told FIFA.com recently. "We don't give up, we're a working-class team and no one wants to meet us."
Might Dempsey, recent scorer of the winner in a comeback victory over Turkey, be primed for glory on South African soil? The words of the man himself might offer a clue: "Life is short and I want to go as far as I can."