- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It was a rambunctious scene that engulfed Craven Cottage time and time again. The ball nestled in the back of the net. U.S. and Texas flags waved at Fulham’s 116-year-old stadium on the banks of the River Thames. And an American pointed to the heavens in celebration.

Playing his sixth season for the west London outfit, Clint Dempsey bagged 17 goals to finish fourth on the English Premier League scoring chart. He played facilitator as well, tying for the team lead with seven assists. When the Football Writers’ Association voted for its player of the year, the 29-year-old placed fourth.

Some strikes showcased on-the-ball skill and an exquisite finishing touch. Others were goal-crashing displays of grit and determination. Whatever the situation called for, Dempsey made sure the ball ended up where it belonged.

“He’s ready to always raise the bar for himself,” U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “The sky’s the limit if you want to work for it and you want to do that every day and be hungrier and nastier and stronger than your competitors. He embraced that approach.”

In terms of American outfield players plying their trade abroad, it was an unparalleled campaign — and one that reportedly has some of Europe’s elite clubs targeting his services. As the rumor mill keeps spinning across the pond, Dempsey has returned stateside during the European offseason to don the U.S. national team jersey once more.

For all the accolades and stardom, Dempsey doesn’t seem to have changed. His Texan drawl carries nary a hint of British inflection, even though he has called London home since 2007. Speaking publicly, he remains humble but self-aware, to the point but reflective. While he accepts his responsibility as a de facto leader for the U.S. team, he doesn’t advertise it.

“I always approach [U.S.] camp the same way: I want to work hard, and I want to make a difference,” Dempsey said. “Anytime you can represent your country, it’s a great thing. It never changes how you approach the camp — you’re always hungry.”

It’s hardly a surprise the onetime New England Revolution standout has retained his modesty. Raised in a Nacogdoches trailer park, Dempsey comes from unassuming beginnings. He’s also a passionate family man with a wife and two children, and he often looks to the sky after scoring as he remembers his sister, Jennifer, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 16.

After a groin injury sidelined Dempsey for the United States’ 5-1 win over Scotland in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, the midfielder-forward is poised to return to the field Wednesday, likely as a substitute, when the Americans host five-time World Cup champion Brazil at FedEx Field.

“I always pressure myself to perform,” Dempsey said. “You always want to play against top teams. It’s exciting. But at the same time, you don’t want to go back unless you feel you can make an impact.”

If Dempsey is remotely near 100 percent, it’s safe to say he’ll be called upon. In addition to his prolific club resume, Dempsey’s 25-goal haul in 83 international appearances is good for fourth in U.S. history. In recent years, he has added to a repertoire that once was defined by his nifty footwork but now features an array of weapons, from his prowess in the air to his proficiency scoring directly off set pieces.

“He’s gotten better and better,” said U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu, who plays for Rangers in Scotland. “He’s a really complete player. He’s scoring a variety of goals — headers, free kicks. He’s added a little bit of a different dynamic to his game.”

Added Dempsey: “I try to better myself every year. That’s something I’ve been able to do, and hopefully I can continue doing that. I’m enjoying my football, but hopefully I can take it to another level.”

For the two-time World Cup veteran, that likely means moving on from the Cottagers and joining an upper-echelon club competing in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. Rich in tradition but less so in funds, Fulham (14-14-10 in the 2011-12 season) may best be served by cashing in on Dempsey’s value in the summer transfer window before his contract expires in 2013.

With storied English sides such as Arsenal and Liverpool reported to be in the running, it seems to be only a matter of time before Dempsey’s already high profile climbs another notch.

“If you play consistently at the highest level, then requests will come in, offers will come in,” Klinsmann said. “If he had the opportunity to go to a Champions League team — that’s the creme de la creme in the world of club soccer — then you’ve got to do that, with all respect to Fulham, as he often mentions.

“Hopefully something will happen over the next couple of weeks. And if it doesn’t happen, then he just has to keep pounding away and knocking at the door.”



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