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The Striker

Clint Dempsey Can Doctor a Game & Cure a Team’s Ills

Striker? Winger? Midfielder? Game Doctor? Ron Popeil? It doesn’t matter. Clint Dempsey’s ability to diagnose a game, and prescribe a solution in real time, is key to his soccer brilliance.
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BY Will Parchman Posted
August 02, 2013
7:30 PM
IT WAS SOMEWHERE around the time of Clint Dempsey's miracle chip against Juventus in the 2010 Europa Cup semifinal that I finally realized Deuce would never have a true position.

Most players who live in the shadows between generally accepted roles do so primarily to hide something. You scoot a technical striker back a few steps if he is visibly uncomfortable carrying the burden of the harsh defensive glare. You push a pacy midfielder out if he lacks the ability to control the wavelength of the game.

You look at the strengths, but every professional soccer player has plenty of them. It's the dents in the armor you try hardest to hide, the shortcomings that force decisions you wouldn't have otherwise made.

This is essentially why it took me so long to accept that Dempsey was not a winger, certainly not a midfielder, and not a consistent striker. Quantifiable players generally have quantifiable roles. So what the heck was Dempsey's?

Bring together four different coaches, all of respectable pedigree, and all four will concoct reasonably different ways to deploy Dempsey. Were he in attendance at this mirage meeting in some smoky back room, Jurgen Klinsmann might find himself agreeing with every one of his coaching compatriots.

In a 4-4-2, one can opt to push it up the wings from the back and pass the baton to a streaking Dempsey, who will dump in crosses and thread in passes for two advanced strikers. When he had two strikers with which to work, both Arena and Bradley did this. Another can deploy him shallow left and collapse the flank, as Roy Hodgson often did at Fulham and as Andre Villas-Boas did early at Tottenham. As Klinsmann himself struggled to find a niche for Dempsey in his earliest moments as skipper, this was his preferred mode.

But as Dempsey enters the stage where his career's sun has perhaps reached its apex and has begun its slight downward bend toward the horizon, we've seen the East Texan increasingly flirt with more forward deployments. While Tottenham still cycles Dempsey through the leftward channels (though he does play centrally at times as the need arises), Klinsmann has unpinned Dempsey's moorings and released him to swing, unhinged, off Jozy Altidore's back.

This is an important turn of events in Dempsey's soccer trajectory. In an ever-changing career, the Dempsey we see before us today is probably the most robust model.

What this means is essentially that what we've heard about Klinsmann's tactics at Bayern have, in some small way, threaded their way into the U.S. team: that he is occasionally too nebulous on the training ground, that his direction is often too idealistic, that he can be strangely opaque in his critiques. This can sting developmentally minded players. I have no idea how this kind of approach will help or hinder a Terrence Boyd, and if it's entirely too harsh of a critique anyway. He may well adjust as the need arises, and Philipp Lahm wasn't the dude to hear it.

Klinsmann may speak in untrimmed hyperbole at times, but Dempsey himself is a nebulous player. Comfortable bedfellows, these. Typically, if you see Landon Donovan fading left, ever closer to the central midfield and even overlapping the left winger, there is cause for worry. When Jozy falls back in an attempt to quickly recycle flagging possession to prod the midfield into better service, it's often the bellwether for a serious issue in the build-up, and Jozy's production plummets. And so it goes.

Dempsey is different. You can read games by the flavor of his movement, and no matter where he finds himself on the field, there's often either a purpose to it or a reasonable expectation that it'll genuinely lead to something more positive. He's perhaps the only player on the team with this kind of leeway, and it's more than deserved. You can understand the exact tenor of a game (and, really, the tactical character of a team) by simply watching one man.

Most of Dempsey's goals for Spurs this past season came from holding back runs at the edge of the box until Bale or Adebayor snapped off shots or weighted passes. Already planted in a dangerous position up top, Dempsey would simply time his run or rotate into clean space for an opportunity. His equalizer against Manchester United in the snow is an easy example, but there are plenty more. The competent wide play and Dempsey's ability to settle in the middle was a perfect indicator that Spurs lacked quality finishing through the middle. When he was able, Dempsey provided.

His form with the U.S. is more complex. The U.S. has no true wingers, and certainly none on the left flank. (Feel free to change that, Fabian Johnson.) Altidore's breathtaking tally against Germany was lick-your-fingers good, but it was his first for the national team in two years. At best, reliable striker play was spotty and was never a given. And, even with competent play at his back, Dempsey at times has had to scramble back to help refresh possession and apply pressure on attacks.

So where do you play Dempsey? In short, it doesn't really matter. This is one thing that, regardless how you feel about the guy, Klinsmann has understood perhaps better than anything else during his tenure here. Dempsey is a Ron Popeil toaster oven. You set it and forget it. (Side note: I'll be incredibly disappointed if I don't see “Ron Popeil” posters pop up at U.S. games with the DeuceFace photoshopped onto it. The task is yours, American Outlaws.)

So you nominally slot Dempsey into the hole, perhaps slightly skewed left on your mental tactical map, and you let him produce his mental syringe to extract blood samples to determine the game's type. The thinking here is you want him close to the attack, able to splay wide, and tucked in close enough proximity to the most ambitious midfielder to pull him into dangerous positions. He'll do the rest.

Dempsey’s Diagnosis: A devastating attack has overloaded the two (three?) holding midfielders Klinsmann has invariably started.
His Prescription: He will head up the defensive trident and make counterattacking runs off its base.

Dempsey’s Diagnosis: A central defensive destroyer is rerouting straightforward attacks like a boulder at the base of a waterfall.
His Prescription: He will float wider, distending the defense before plunging back in for tap-ins, headers and killer balls.

Dempsey’s Diagnosis: An inability to convert on chances has left the team without a consistent goal threat.
His Prescription: Dempsey pushes high, makes timely stabbing runs between the center backs and ruins offside traps.

I mentioned earlier that players who float through positions are typically ones who can't find the game. Jose Torres is still trying to find his cleats somewhere in the Saprissa. Bizarrely (and in rare style), this is not Dempsey's plight. Which probably makes him the most uniquely successful player in U.S. soccer history.

Is he a striker? Contrary to most of his lineup sheets here, well, no not really. Contrary to most of his lineup sheets in England, he's not really a midfielder either. Clint Dempsey defies convention. He is 2000 Totti with a more universal ethos.

U.S. soccer has strained itself—often to its breaking point—to find players who can produce fissures in an American mold worn smooth with overuse. Dempsey's inability to be pegged down by simplified titles makes him one of our best ever.

Whether you call him a striker or not.

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