Clint Dempsey's home state cameo sparks U.S. victory over Costa Rica
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The setting couldn't have been more perfect for Clint Dempsey.
There he was, in his home state, with 27 friends and family in attendance and even more from his hometown of Nacogdoches. And midway through the second half of a tense and scoreless Gold Cup semifinal against Costa Rica, the United States needed an offensive spark.
As he has so many times in the past, Dempsey delivered for the Americans, setting up Jozy Altidore's opener in the 72nd minute, and then scoring a goal of his own 10 minutes later to equal Landon Donovan's U.S. national team goal-scoring record. With its 2-0 win, the United States is now in the final, where they'll face the winner of Sunday night's match between Mexico and Jamaica.
As Dempsey pondered the night's events, he seemed at a loss to explain it.
"It's bigger than me, man. It was something that was already written, it seems like," Dempsey said. "I couldn't have pictured a better scenario, coming off the bench and getting a goal and assist, and helping the team get to the final. That's a dream come true."
Of course, there have always been multiple layers to Dempsey's record quest. There are his small-town roots, the drives to Dallas to play with his youth club, first with his parents at the wheel, later with his brother Ryan in a Ford Probe. Then there was his journey through MLS to the English Premier League and back.
But an extra, decidedly massive hurdle was added last year when he was diagnosed with a heart ailment that shut him down for the last four months of the MLS season. As Dempsey reflected on his night, he was thinking about all of those things, but especially the illness that nearly ended his career.
"It means a lot, especially after a few heart procedures, being able to be back on the pitch and play at this level and be competitive," Dempsey said about the record.
"It's great to be able to say that I'm a player that's tied with another player who's scored the most goals in national team history when I'm a kid from Nacogdoches, and to do it in less games, with less penalties, it feels great."
It was a night that Dempsey's U.S. teammates were happy to share as well.
"It's very special," captain Michael Bradley said. "[Dempsey is] a guy who leaves his heart and soul on the field every time he plays, a guy who for me personally, I've been on the field together with him on so many big days. And for him to come on the field in a big game like tonight, in Texas, set up the game winner, score the goal that ties the record like that, I couldn't be happier for him, and it's a special night for him and for all of us."
There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about Dempsey's role going forward. Some of that had to do with his heart ailment; some of it was related to the fact that, at age 34, he may not have the legs to be on the field from the start. And there was an open question whether a player as fiercely competitive as Dempsey would be willing to accept a role as a substitute.
But perhaps Bruce Arena's greatest strength as a manager is his ability to relate to his players. He admitted in his postmatch news conference that the quick turnaround in games -- Dempsey went 90 minutes in the quarterfinal against El Salvador on Wednesday -- meant his plan was always to use the former Fulham man as a sub. And it was one that he made sure to communicate to the player. From the sounds of it, Dempsey was on board.
"[Arena] thought it was going to be a tight game, where he could bring me on late and I had to open up," Dempsey said. "It was always going to be a little bit difficult trying to go 90 three days after going 90 at 34. I was happy with the decision, and glad to come on and make an impact."
That willingness to take on such a role may be what gets Dempsey to his fourth World Cup. But on this day, Dempsey's performance meant that the United States was able to get full value for what was easily its most complete performance of the tournament.
Some might suggest that is damning with faint praise, and they'd have a case. The United States was less than convincing in the group stage, and the reinforcements that Arena added in the form of six new players gave the Americans a huge boost in experience and an advantage over their knockout round rivals. Then there were the injuries to five different Costa Rica players, most of them attackers, that left the Ticos far from full strength. Had Costa Rica forward Marco Urena been a bit more clinical in front of goal -- and U.S. keeper Tim Howard a little less sharp -- the result could have been very different.
But the bottom line is that this was a game the U.S. was supposed to win, and thanks to Dempsey, it won it. Now it can go into Wednesday's final free of some of the tension that seemed to weigh heavily earlier in the tournament.
That goes for some other individuals as well. One only had to look at the gusto with which Altidore celebrated his goal to realize how much it meant to him. This is a player who, whenever a tournament rolled around, usually seemed to be struck down by injury. It was clear from the moment Altidore ripped his shirt off in celebration that his fitness isn't a concern.
"It's been a tough road for me in terms of tournaments for the national team," he said. "To get [a goal] finally, playing in kind of an important game, I was really happy. I was just happy to be out there because I haven't been able to play in an important one in a while."
Altidore was happy to cede the spotlight to Dempsey, however, even as the Texan does his utmost to shun it.
"Clint is a guy who likes to keep to himself; he's not a guy that's going to look for all the attention," Altidore said. "Everybody is happy for him. And trust me, there's one more goal for him in there. He knows the job isn't done for him yet. Everybody will be pushing for him to get that record."
They'll be pushing to finish off this Gold Cup as champions as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.