When Clint Dempsey tried to walk the ball in against Guadeloupe, it was predictably disrupted, and he was predictably blasted for being too casual. It's a particularly biting critique for soccer, the one sport where we expect American athletes' effort to outpace their skill, rather than the other way around. But it misses the essence of what makes Dempsey Dempsey, and attempts to paint a strength as a weakness.
Dempsey is an absolute product of his upbringing in Nacogdoches, learning the game alongside the immigrant kids, and later, playing against former pros from the Mexican leagues. There's an ease of movement to his paths on the pitch that wouldn't look out of place on El Tri, all swooping arcs and mutable positioning rather than the staccato stop-start-long ball which characterizes the USMNT attack. It's how he can be the best striker in the nation even when playing his preferred position on the wing. He's got technique, yes, but it's an improvisational technique. He tries things that aren't in the manual, and no one else on that team would even consider. Often they're spectacular failures, but at least they're the yield of a creative brain. Or, perhaps, the reptilian brain: Dempsey operates on instinct more often than not, and he's usually right to trust his. That's 100 percent due to his rearing outside the traditional US youth soccer system.
If it's possible to glean insights from off-the-field action, there's Dempsey's rapping style to parse (he's not embarrassing, which is high praise). Half-formed plosives, approximated sibilants, a viscous gush of words, "Deuce's" flow is like his game: all conservation of momentum. You get the feeling there's not one superfluous jaw movement on his tracks, not one wasted step on the pitch. It's not being casual. It's being fluid.
It's also being confident. Dempsey is one of the few American players who holds their own in top-level international competition, and he's the only one who plays like he knows it. It's cocky, to believe you can just go through the motions and still stand out against the best CONCACAF has to offer, but it's not false. It's almost as if he's playing in a lower gear for games like these, which would be infuriating if he didn't kick it up a notch for the matches that really matter; just look at his performance in the Confed Cup and World Cup qualifiers. Bring on the "casual" criticisms if he doesn't find an extra step for Panama or Mexico.
No matter the opponent, Dempsey maintains his composure. Most US players' eyes grow wide when they see the net, and tunnel vision takes over. A swift boot to an bouncing ball sends it wide, or high, or otherwise off-target. In the 41st minute yesterday, Jermaine Jones had a tough angle but an open look, and somehow managed to block his own shot. But Dempsey's different. He takes a few moments after the touch to gather his wits, survey his position, and weigh his options. Sometimes it bites him: on the Guadeloupe choke, he would have been better off just dumping it straight ahead rather than making sure he had the ball settled. Other times it makes all the difference.
On yesterday's goal against Jamaica, Agudelo's cross found him a split second before the onrushing keeper. No one would have blamed him for trying a quick chip, with uncertain results. Instead, he sidestepped Donovan Ricketts, and was able to slot the ball, and the match, away without a fuss. That doesn't happen if he panics.
What a paradox we have in Clint Dempsey. His composure provides results. Those results give him confidence. That confidence makes him appear casual. And in the end, the biggest criticism we can muster is that Dempsey makes the game look easy, all the while his teammates make soccer look so hard.