SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Stood in the mixed zone talking to reporters with a cut on the back right of his head and two stitches on his right eyebrow, Clint Dempsey resembled a warrior.
He had just gone toe-to-toe with a bruising Colombian defense and he came out on top on plenty of occasions despite the U.S. losing 2-0 in their Group A Copa America Centenario opener on Friday.
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Dempsey, 33, used all his nous to win free kicks, drag himself up when he was knocked down multiple times and he had the USMNT’s three best chances on his 125th appearance for the Stars and Stripes.
His first half shot just curled wide. His second half header was cleared off the line. His bending free kick was saved superbly by David Ospina.
Each time Dempsey kept getting up and went again.
“Clint was a warrior out there, he gave everything he had. He was fighting that fight,” USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said afterwards. “He was very positive until the very last second and you wish that sooner rather than later one goes in.”
His close calls and battling display aside, the truth of the matter is that Dempsey was up top in a position we all know isn’t his best. That highlights a huge problem area for the U.S. right now.
The Seattle Sounders forward is most comfortable off a front man but just like at the 2014 World Cup when Jozy Altidore went down early with an injury, Dempsey became the target forward. He is once again the outlet. With Altidore out this summer for another major tournament, Dempsey took on the role of playing up high centrally. He did it with grit and determination and dug deep for the team.
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Both Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood failed to support Dempsey properly from wide positions and both prefer to play centrally.
Why not play them up top with Dempsey in behind doing what he does best; create and work openings for others and himself to exploit?
“Clint is Clint. I love playing with him,” U.S. center back Geoff Cameron said. “He is great on the ball, he creates a lot of things that people don’t really notice. For me, whenever I’m on the ball I try and get him on the ball because he creates space and brings guys in and allows other guys to get involved in the game.”
Dempsey must be used in his correct role if the U.S. will get the best out of him in the tournament but who else can play centrally and have half the impact he had on Friday?
Speaking to the media afterwards, the rugged Texan shrugged off his missed opportunities, stating that Colombia sat back and soaked up pressure as soon as they went 2-0 up.
Dempsey also suggested the penalty kick for Colombia’s second wasn’t a handball on DeAndre Yedlin and was upset the home advantage didn’t cut the U.S. some slack.
Forget all that, though. The man from Nacogdoches, Texas will keep fighting that good fight.
“What do you do when you have that penalty called against you, in your home country?” Dempsey asked. “We are used to getting those type of calls even if it is kind of close but we keep fighting. We are used to dealing with these situations.”