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The Big Pitcher: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Clint Dempsey?

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Pop culture figures I personally have compared Clint Dempsey to in writing:

- Han Solo
- Yoda
- Dean Moriarty
- Arthur Fonzarelli
- Batman
- Indiana Jones
- Charles Bronson’s claustrophobic “Tunnel King”
- MacGyver

And now, kind of, sort of, Maria von Trapp

Basically, Clint Dempsey is the Patton Oswalt Episode VII pitch of American soccer. (This would make a fantastic web video, except Dempsey isn’t a convincing actor even when he plays himself in TV commercials.)

Through one and a quarter rounds of qualifying, Dempsey has scored seven of the USMNT’s 13 total goals, largely from a central attacking midfield/shadow striker role in Klinsmann’s 4-Pentagon-That-Rotates-from-Game-to-Game-So-That-A-Different-Player-Is-Always-Highest-1 formation. He is the only effective component in an offense that has been sputtering for more than a year now, the one player the team can depend on to put the ball in the back of the net, the best player on the team playing in his preferred position.

He has to go.

Not go-away-forever go. But go-somewhere-else go. Despite the impressive goal haul, despite his standing as the captain, despite the fact that he is often our only hope, building around Dempsey in the central attacking midfielder role is not a good thing.

This isn’t news to most U.S. fans; it’s something that’s been mentioned in passing for months across the soccer media spectrum, but has seemed the least of all possible worries about the team as long as he’s still scoring goals. Whether it’s a symptom of the team’s growing pains or a cause is something idly wondered about while fans and pundits continue their search for Dutch Jozy Altidore and play Elimidate with center back pairings. Who would even play there? (The answer is U.S. Soccer’s own Len Bias, 2010 Stu Holden.) Given the lack of other options, maybe it’s okay. It’s better than playing three defensive midfielders, right?

Well, yes, but not enough so. Best case scenario: With the offense running smoothly, (Q1: Is Michael Bradley playing? Q2: Is everyone saying nasty things on Twitter about the team and coach because of their last performance? If Y to Q1 and Q2, then yes, the offense is probably running smoothly.) Dempsey is able to play higher up and with the confidence that his teammates will get him the ball in the final third.

All other scenarios: The offense grinds its gears trying to get from second to third and Dempsey starts dropping deeper in search of the ball. This is a problem, because he all-too-often gets it.

Teammates know that Deuce is the best chance to make something happen when the offense is sputtering, but when Dempsey gets the ball at the center circle he’s merely a good player, not the leather-jacket wearing, Harrison Ford-channeling, fashion-chances-out-of-duct-tape-and-jumper-cables embodiment of American soccer id that he ought to be.

That’s not to say he’s been bad; he’s actually proved himself adept at keeping possession in Klinsmann’s offense, misplacing a total of six passes against Belgium and Germany combined. The bad news is just two of his 81 completed passes found someone inside the 18-yard box: the headed assist and a right-wing cross. The threat of his passing pales in comparison to the threat of his goal-scoring. He’s a finisher, not a playmaker.

Dempsey can be a creative force; it’s just his skill set is built much more around getting the ball around the last line of defenders and into the net, not through the midfield shield in front of them and to a player in good position. Some zones on the field are more difficult for offensive players to operate in than others. The best playmakers skirt the edges of them, dominating the seams. Dempsey abandons them entirely, searching out spaces deeper in midfield or towards the flanks, or pushing further forward where he can take one touch before getting off a shot. The issue, in other words, isn’t getting him the ball; it’s also getting it to the people in front of him.

Dempsey at his best is a ball-stopper; the qualities that we praise in him, the vaunted willingness to “just try shit,” requires that he take the ball and do something audacious and risky and likely as not to fail with it. We lament the fact that more of our players don’t do this, but we’re asking the one who does to complete 93 percent of his passes and lose the ball just four other times and to try to jumpstart the offense by moving further and further away from the area in which he does his best offensive work. That he’s the one who usually manages to score in these games anyway is a testament to his ability to convert the one chance that falls his way.

To run the offense through him as a central attacking midfielder is to neuter that instinct. Dempsey creates and takes his own chances so well that he gives you plan A production even when he is the plan B, Nearly every new coach Fulham cycled through during his time at the club started by benching Dempsey for the sake of whatever system they envisioned the team playing, then going back to him when it became apparent that they needed another, different kind of threat to ride out of the sunset and save everyone’s asses.  When he gets to play higher up in that role, it works out just fine. When he does take on more of a linking role, the result can be less than ideal.

Klinsmann’s been experimenting for nearly a year playing a goalscorer on the left to balance a more service-oriented player on the right – think how Brazil used Robinho under Dunga, starting high on the flank to take advantage of space left by a marauding fullback but moving into the gap between the right fullback and the centerback in attack. Klinsmann asks for more defensive discipline from this player, but has gotten serviceable performances out of non-wingers Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson, who’s so thoroughly converted in Klinsmann’s mind that he’s listed as a midfielder on the Gold Cup provisional roster.

You get the sense this role was at one point, specifically this point, earmarked for Brek Shea to grow into. Now in theory, it’s a way to get a third striker-type on the field while maintaining defensive shape and a semblance of width. In practice, when things are not going well, it’s another withered body to be dug up from under the touchline after being starved of service for 90 minutes. 

Now it’s time to give that spot back to Dempsey, who’s spent much of his career for club and country cutting inside from that area. Starting him out wide won’t keep him out of central goalscoring positions: the two Agents Johnson played their combined 79 total minutes on two different flanks yesterday opposite service men Graham Zusi and Brad Davis (somewhat frustratingly matching Eddie’s speed against the only German who seemed to have any interest in running, Dennis Aogo), but you wouldn’t know it from where they were getting the ball.

It may not be. All the reasons listed above could be used as justification for putting him right in front of goal, as a traditional striker or a false-nine, except the team would still lack for wing options to play around him or midfield runners to move into the space he opens up with his movement. To what lengths should we go in order to build a team around Clint Dempsey? Do we even have the parts to build that kind of a team?

And, most crucially, does Dempsey need a team to be built around him?  Or can he still survive, and even thrive, as the best Plan B in the business?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, USMNT

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