On Thursday, in a phone interview with me from London, U.S. Men's National Team captain Clint Dempsey said that he's convinced that the United States can advance from the Group of Death - Germany, Portugal and Ghana - at World Cup Brazil this June.
Dempsey, a Designated Player for the Seattle Sounders, is currently on loan to his former club Fulham FC and fighting to keep the English Premier Club out of relegation. Dempsey, 30, is the first American to ever score a hat trick in the EPL and has delivered 36 goals in 101 appearances for the U.S. Men's National Team. The attacking midfielder began his professional career in 2004 with the New England Revolution, where he scored 25 goals in 71 appearances, and in 2006, was sold to Fulham for $4 million, the largest-ever transfer fee for an MLS player. In 2012, Dempsey broke the record for most goals in a Premier League season by a Fulham player. Now, while preparing for World Cup, Dempsey is also appearing for the Degree DO:MORE campaign, which is sponsoring an opportunity for a lucky fan to win a trip to Brazil this summer.
LE: Do you really think the USA can advance from World Cup group play against powerhouses like Germany, Portugal and Ghana?
Dempsey: Yeah, for sure. You’ve got to think that way. We’re coming off our most successful year with the U.S. National Team and when you get to the World Cup it’s anybody’s game. That’s the beautiful thing about the game of soccer. You’ve gotta go there and be at your best, you’ve got to bring your best. When we get to the tournament we have to be hitting top form and if you get the points out of the game, you take every game as it comes and make the most of it and put yourself in a position to get out of the group. And if we get out of the group, it will be seen as a success and and when you get into the playoff stages and after that, then anything can happen. But you have to go into it with that mindset. Any competition, anytime you’re in a World Cup, it’s always the goal to get out of the group. It is going to be difficult, but it’s also going to be very exciting for the fans and for the players. You’re getting to test yourself against the best and that’s what this tournament is about.
LE: How old were you when you first got interested in the World Cup and what were your most powerful impressions of the tournament at a young age?
Dempsey: I would say when I was probably around nine or 10 years-old. I watched a tape called Hero and in that tape it had highlights from the 1986 World Cup and I got to see Diego Maradona play for Argentina and how great of a player he was and how he could impact that tournament and those games and helped his team to win the World Cup. To see the passion that the fans had for the game in Mexico and all the people representing their countries and people being so excited about that sport, I just gravitated towards that and wanted to be a part of that.
I was lucky enough in 1994, I got a chance to go to some of the games that they had in the United States for the World Cup when the tournament was there and I was hoping that one day and dreamed about that maybe I’d get that opportunity to do that. Then in 2006, when Bruce Arena was the coach, I got the opportunity to play in the World Cup and also to score. so that was really a dream come true for me and that’s how it all started.
LE: When you first went to World Cup games as a fan for the first time in ’94, what was that experience like for you?
Dempsey: It was awesome. To be in the States and to see fans that excited for the game that you love was awesome because I grew up in a small town down in Nacogdoches, Texas, where the majority of the town really weren’t passionate about the game that I played. There was a strong Hispanic influence and that's the people I gravitated towards because we had more in common enjoying the game. But in Texas, where it’s dominated by football – American football, basketball and baseball – to go there in the Cotton Bowl and watch a World Cup and see it packed for a soccer game was a great feeling. The game has come a long way and I hope that one day I get the opportunity to play in front of that many people.
LE: But in Brazil, you're going to be playing against some of the best countries very early on in the tournament, which is what makes this World Cup so hard for the U.S. National Team. Can you provide an example of when you faced similarly ominous opponents in major competition and the match resulted in a positive outcome for the USA?
Dempsey: Yeah, in 2010, when we were playing against England in the first game of the World Cup down in South Africa. We got a draw in that game and that was an important way to start the tournament off by getting one point because it was against one of the better teams in the group and it put us in a situation that if we got a few of the right results, then we could advance. So, we ended up in that tournament finishing at the top of our group, which was pretty awesome, and we accomplished our goals getting out of that group and getting into the playoff stages. Unfortunately, we came up a little bit short against Ghana in overtime, but hopefully we can take care of business this time in Brazil.
LE: What’s your involvement in Degree DO:MORE campaign?
Dempsey: I’m with the Degree Deodorant DO:MORE campaign, trying to improve. With the new motion technology deodorant, the more you move, the more it protects you. The cool thing about the campaign is we’re going to be at World Cup along with the U.S. Men’s National Team and if you go to degreesoccer.com you can win a chance to go down there and be a part of the festivities and enjoy being there for the tournament.
LE: You’re on loan to Fulham for the winter. What's it like returning to the club for a second time?
Dempsey: It’s cool. For me, it was an opportunity to get back to full fitness and try to help the team in a difficult situation because they were down towards the bottom and still in that position in the table. But, we’ve been in this situation before. The first two seasons I was at Fulham we faced the relegation battle and in my first year there my first goal that I ever scored kept us up from relegation, getting a goal against Liverpool. So hopefully, during the next month that I’m here with Fulham, I’ll try to help them get as many points as possible to get out of this situation, but also it's about making sure that I get back to full fitness and that I’ll hit the ground running when I get back to MLS because the first game starts up in March.
LE: You’re now on a big Designated Player contract with Seattle, but would you consider playing for David Beckham’s Miami team in the future?
Dempsey: I’m happy in Seattle. I did a three and a half year deal there and I have three more years left there. It’s a great city, some of the best fans in the world, 45,000 plus every game. I’m happy to be there and don’t want to be anywhere else and really the goal is to bring MLS Cup back to that city. The Seahawks were able to bring a championship there with the Super Bowl and hopefully the Seattle Sounders we can do the same, that’s what we’re trying to do, so I’m happy to play in Seattle.
LE: What will turn Seattle’s fortunes around in 2014?
Dempsey: Well, I’m happy to be starting the season off at the beginning of the season. [Last year] it was difficult trying to join the team late in the season and playing against people in mid-season form. I also had to get used to playing on turf again, but now I know what it’s like and I got used to the travel again. I’m looking forward to starting the season fresh and starting the same as everybody else. I feel sharper for it from being over here at Fulham on loan and with the work I’m putting in here, I’ll be able to hit the ground running when I want to get back to the MLS.
LE: How do you think Beckham’s club will affect MLS? He has big plans for that club.
Dempsey: Hopefully, it will help continue to grow the game in the States. I know that Florida in the past had a little bit of a difficult time because there was the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion and that fell away. Now, they’re getting more teams back in Florida, which is great, but anytime you see more franchises popping up and stadiums coming, it shows that the game is growing in the States. And that’s good for the game.
LE: I’m from outside Boston and Revolution fans still reminisce about your time there and were upset when you left Europe for Seattle instead of Boston. You were such a motivated player it left a big impact on people. You are also the first American to ever score a hat trick in the EPL. Where does that exceptional level of drive and motivation come from?
Dempsey: It comes from a small town and having to work hard for anything you've got. For me, I had to drive three hours to train and three hours to come back home. The sacrifices my family made for me made me remember to make the most of every game, that anything less than my best would kind of be a slap in their face. I learned at a young age a really strong work ethic and anything you wanted in this world you had to work for and make it happen, and that’s something that's always helped me in my career.
LE: Three hours each way is a long time to be in a car with your mom. What would you guys talk about?
Dempsey: We’d talk about everything if I rode with my mom or my dad. We'd know every song on the radio. We’d talk about life. I remember with my dad, we’d talk about if we won the lottery what we’d do with it. Those are some of my favorite memories of those trips back and forth to Dallas - if we won the lottery, what we’d do with it. To be able to have a good career and be able to take care of my mom and dad is something I really pride myself on. It really makes me feel good to give back to them because they sacrificed a lot for me.