On the brink of essentially their elimination from the Copa America Centenario—the tournament brought to America as a soccer showcase—the U.S. Men's National Team desperately needed an early goal against defensive-minded, counter-attacking Costa Rica, which had dominated the opening moments of Tuesday night's match against the Americans at Soldier Field in Chicago.
So when the U.S. was gifted a penalty kick in the ninth minute, the team, desperate for a confidence boost, turned to its most consistent stalwart: Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey sent the Costa Rican keeper the wrong way for the opening goal—his 50th in a national team uniform—in what turned out to be a 4-0 rout. After a disheartening loss to Colombia in the tournament opener, the U.S. is now back on track to advance out of the group stage of the tournament.
The U.S. only needs a draw on Saturday against Paraguay to qualify for the knockout round. They could even win the group with a victory against Paraguay and a Colombia loss against Costa Rica. From the bottom of the group to possibly the top, and it all began with Dempsey's goal.
"To get off to an early goal gives you confidence and gives you breathing room, but we needed to keep our foot on the gas," Dempsey said.
The U.S. dominated the last 20 minutes of the first half, with Dempsey leading the way. Constantly attacking, the U.S. got two more goals, both assisted by Dempsey, before the . By the time he subbed off in the 78th minute, he had been part of nearly every American scoring opportunity.
"You have three games, you find a way to get your points, and that's what we did today," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Rarely has there been more pressure on the U.S. in the Klinsmann era than before this game. Their 2-0 loss to Colombia had really sent fans into a panic, with some calling for Klinsmann's job. Speaking to reporters before Tuesday's game, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati did nothing to quiet critics, and did not guarantee that Klinsmann would have a job after the Copa America.
"Results are what matter," Gulati said. "Results of the last 18 months overall haven't been what we would have hoped for, especially in the official competitions."
The U.S. has faced similar circumstances this year. In March, a 2-0 loss to Guatemala during World Cup qualifying sparked similar questions about Klinsmann's job security, and the pressure on Team USA in the follow-up match was acute—a second loss to the Guatemalans would have been catastrophic. The result? Another 4-0 win, with Dempsey providing breathing room on an early goal.
It's moments like those throughout Dempsey's career that stand out—his first-minute goal against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup being another example—but the American striker keeps a greater perspective.
"We perform well even when our backs are not against the wall, the last World Cup and other groups we've been in," he said. "But yeah, we've also performed with our backs against the wall—the Confederations Cup and against Guatemala. Really, any World Cup cycle, you're going to have periods where things are not going well and you have to respond, and for us to have a chance of staying in this tournament and getting out of our group, we needed to win tonight."
That kind of historical perspective is refreshing for a team that's caught somewhere between the future and the past. This tournament was supposed to be about the future of U.S. Soccer, with the inclusions of 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund phenom Christian Pulisic and 23-year-old Bobby Wood, who added a goal (off Dempsey's assist) Tuesday. And heading into the game against Costa Rica, with the U.S. playing fairly poorly overall and the youngsters playing well in tune-up matches, there was mounting pressure to replace Dempsey in the starting lineup.
At age 33, Dempsey has certainly lost a step, and he doesn't add much to the flow of the U.S. attack. He's not going to make runs like the other U.S. strikers, and he's not going to beat defenders with tactical footwork like even Pulisic could. SB Nation's USMNT site, the MLS website and USA Today, among others, all called for his benching within the past two weeks.
For all his shortcomings, however, Dempsey has always made things happen for the U.S. Some of that is luck—he was chosen for the penalty kick, and his assist to Jones seemed to be a pass to nobody—but some of it is just his personality.
Unlike some of the U.S.'s more tentative forwards like Gyasi Zardes, or its maddeningly inconsistent shooters like Chris Wondolowski, Dempsey has the "screw it, I'm shooting" mentality that the team sorely lacks. This is the guy who ten years ago created a US Soccer rap called "Don't Tread," telling opponents, "Don't wake a sleeping giant unless you want to see him pissed." And that's exactly how he plays. His role on the field is largely insignificant until he finds the ball at his feet. Then, when his team most needs it, he shoots, shoots, and shoots some more.
"Today, things didn't flow perfectly, but we managed to get the goals," Klinsmann said. That, both the good and the bad, is on Dempsey.
Eventually, the U.S. wants to be able to play a free-flowing of soccer, and if that time ever comes—as Klinsmann hopes it will with Wood, Pulisic, and Darlington Nagbe, among others—Dempsey's knack for turning breakdowns into goals might be less useful. The best teams in the world don't need players like this older version of Clint Dempsey to climb out of holes.
The U.S. is not there yet, no matter how badly Klinsmann wants to play that way. Even as hope for the new generation grows, against Costa Rica Dempsey proved that, at age 33, he's still essential to the U.S. national team.