David Hirshey writes regularly about soccer for Deadspin.
Clint Dempsey couldn't understand what I was doing standing at the edge of the Fulham pitch, shivering like Jack Bauer after a bout of waterboarding in a Chinese prison, and, frankly neither could I.
"All the way from New York, huh?" said Dempsey as a doctor amputated my big toe that had long ago lost all circulation from the artic winds that whipped around Craven Cottage in the gathering dusk.
I had come to London Thursday to spend 48 hours getting my game face on—think Danny DeVito on The View—for Arsenal's epic collision with ManU when word burbled up from the sludge of my Guinness-soaked brain that the Deuce was back in town and ready to rock the Prem. Thanks to Deadspin's growing reputation as the Drinking Fan's Guide to British football, I was able to cadge a credential—if not a pint!—in Fulham's press room. There, I ran into Brian Glanville or "the Man from The Sunday Times" as the awed Fulham flack referred to him. I asked him why Fulham was so sweet on American players—McBride, Bocanegra, and now Dempsey.
"They're cheap, they're available and they speak the language," explained the eminence gris of British soccer writers. Here he paused a beat. "Unlike, say, Beckham." Oh the English are having a jolly olde time with Becks' decision to forsake the Premiership—he was reportedly wooed by Tottenham and Bolton—for the MLS. "He has given up grownup football for filthy American lucre," is how Glanville sees it.
Which makes Dempsey's four million dollar leap across the pond in the other direction all the more interesting. He is arriving in England at a time when mocking American soccer appears to be the country's SECOND favorite sport. "Obviously the level is higher and the speed of play is faster than in the MLS," Dempsey said after being blooded in the Premiership for the final 13 minutes of Fulham's 1-1 draw with Spurs. "It's more comparable to the World Cup."
Ah, the World Cup where Dempsey emerged from the wreckage as the one American player whose reputation was actually enhanced. His venomously struck goal against Ghana all but screamed "Hello, my name is Clint Dempsey and I am ready to leave MLS."
It took seven months of byzantine negotiations for MLS to part with their most valuable export but all that was forgotten when the public address announcer at Craven Cottage blared "Coming on for Moritz Volz, number 23 Clint Dempsey."
As Dempsey ran out onto the field, a chant went up in the north end of the stadium. :U-S-A, U-S-A" . Dempsey has heard the chant before, of course, but this was different. This wasn't Uncle Sam's Army serenading him but a bunch of hardbitten Englishmen who pride themselves on having invented the game and need to be convinced that Americans have any business playing it.
"That was cool," said Dempsey of the chanting. "It helped me get the jitters out." Dempsey knows how to play only one way—balls out—and within seconds of coming on, he was launching himself into tackles with his usual abandon. In the 83rd minute he won a 50-50 ball deep in the Fulham end by sliding into Spurs striker Robbie Keane. Both went down in a tangle of legs but Dempsey emerged with the ball and advanced upfield before executing a cheeky backheel to Michael Brown who thumped a pass into the box. The ball fell to McBride and his volley hit a Spurs defender in the hand. When Montella converted the penalty, Fulham led 1-0 and Dempsey had the satisfaction of knowing he had started the move resulting in the goal.
"It's nice that two Americans were involved in the goal," Dempsey said afterwards. "But I'm not looking at it that way. I just want to get fully fit and contribute. Considering that I haven't played since November, it felt good to get a runout."
So determined is Dempsey to get back into shape he ran windsprints for half an hour after the game. When he finally walked off the field, he looked like your typical English pro, his body covered with sweat, grime, and cleat marks.
Will he be composing a rap in honor of his Premiership debut?
"No," he smiled. "I'm retired from rapping. I just want to focus on soccer and chillin'."
The Deuce is loose in London. Respect.