You’ve heard it by now, but Clint Dempsey lost it again on Tuesday night.
It was the fourth round of the US Open Cup, Seattle Sounders against the Portland Timbers. The game was in extra time, and the Sounders, through both misfortune and misdeed, were down to nine men against Portland’s 11.
The Sounders had just lost another man, midfielder Michael Azira to a straight red card for a stomp on Portland’s diminutive Argentine playmaker Gaston Fernandez. They were down 2-1, and on their way out of the tournament in the most acrimonious of circumstances.
Dempsey had come into the game as a sub with just over 10 minutes to go in regulation, and now, with just over five minutes to go the overtime, he was going postal.
After Azira was shown red, Dempsey ripped the referee’s notebook out of his hands and threw it on the ground. That was good for a yellow card. He then picked it up, and ripped it in half. That was good for red.
The Timbers fans were gleeful. The Sounders fans threw garbage onto the field and at the Portland bench. The neutrals scored Dempsey’s performance 10 for creativity, zero for professionalism.
It wasn’t harmful, but the line between grabbing and tearing up the referee’s notebook and grabbing and tearing up the referee is a thin one. Dempsey, for the record, tried to accomplish the latter feat but was restrained by his teammates.
As much as what Dempsey did is laughable, this is about protecting referees, sportsmanship, and the integrity of the game – especially because this is such a visible case of egregious misconduct.
This isn’t the first time Dempsey has gotten in trouble, though this situation will have the furthest reaching consequences. At this point, we’re used to Dempsey’s snarl, used to his petulance, and used to his sour lack of class. He got into multiple fights in New England. He charged a linesman in 2013 with the Sounders. Last year, he was suspended for two games for a groin-shot on Toronto FC defender Marc Bloom.
He deserves his punishment. He probably should have gotten more, considering his history, or if MLS ever wanted to, you know, follow its own rules.
Dempsey was conspicuously absent from Sounders training on Thursday morning. He won’t apologize. That’s not his style. Instead, Seattle owner Adrian Hanauer handled that task gracefully.
None of this is to say that Dempsey is a demon. He isn’t. He’s a solid guy. But he stepped way, way over the line. The US captain must do better. The Sounders, from Hanauer down to manager Sigi Schmid, have vowed to do better. But this starts with Dempsey.
Three games, which is what MLS banned Dempsey for on Friday is a somewhat lenient punishment. The USSF hands down its punishment next week, which could impact Dempsey’s future participation in the Open Cup and potentially in the Gold Cup. There should be further national team punishment.
It cuts two ways with Dempsey. The Texan is a terrific, almost psychotic competitor, and that competitiveness has manifested itself in plenty of great moments.
One of those unforgettable and incredible moments was Dempsey crying on the medal stand after the 2009 Confederations Cup final.
It didn’t matter that Sepp Blatter had just presented him with the Bronze Ball for third best player in the tournament, didn’t matter that he’d made the all tournament team, didn’t matter that he had a silver medal around his neck in a tournament that the US was supposed to be out of after two group stage games – all that mattered was that his team had lost, 3-2 to Brazil. He was in tears. Inconsolable.
Dempsey scores a lot of goals because he’s an incredibly skillful player, absolutely, but he also scores a lot of goals because of his drive and will. A 60-yard run in searing Portland heat last year when Dempsey blew by Michael Harrington to score a tap-in is a perfect example.
The problem with Dempsey is that competitiveness is tinged with something darker, and that darkness has provided plenty of ugly, classless moments. And this is the man who is supposed to be the leader of US Soccer? A role model?
Dempsey was never suited to the captaincy, like many great players before him and many great players to come.
Jurgen Klinsmann, who often accomplishes his goal of pushing players out of their comfort zones by playing them out of position, or putting a German fourth division player in the World Cup squad, made Dempsey captain in the hope that a great player would become a great leader.
It didn’t happen.
Dempsey’s behavior has been unbecoming of a US captain, and even if that moral argument understandably doesn’t move you, Dempsey’s time has past.
If you watched any part of the Americans’ stirring comeback friendly wins over the Netherlands and Germany two weeks ago, you know that the USMNT is Michael Bradley’s team now.
Dempsey will be 35 by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around, and while he may still be contributing then, he certainly won’t be the face of the team like he arguably was in Brazil.
In three years, Bradley will be 30, and at the height of his powers. He’s a born leader – son of a coach, of course, but it goes beyond that. When Bradley talks, people listen.
Unlike Dempsey, Bradley captains his club team. He’s not just the best player for the US; he’s the most revered player. The engine.
This is a golden opportunity for a switch. The Gold Cup is the perfect point for a transition, especially now, especially considering Dempsey’s latest act, his lack of repentance, and his clear history.
Clint Dempsey is a great player. He’s a lousy leader. His actions damaged his club and his country, not to mention himself. It’s time for US Soccer to move on to a man more worthy of its captaincy.
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