The latest folk hero of American soccer grew up in a trailer home, perfected his moves on a dusty East Texas field and spends his spare time fishing and freestyling to Houston rappers like Slim Thug and Lil' Flip. It was easy to dismiss Clint Dempsey as a Southern-fried footnote (the No. 8 pick) in the Freddy Adu--headlined draft 16 months ago. Yet no player from the class of '04 has had a bigger impact on MLS and the national team than the 22-year-old New England Revolution midfielder. Through the first six games of '05 Dempsey has backed up his rookie of the year debut with a blazing encore--five goals and four assists--to become the league's early MVP favorite.
As the slippery point man for MLS's most prolific attack, Dempsey is the main reason the normally slow-starting Revs have the league's best record (5-0-1) heading into Saturday's nationally televised showdown against Adu and D.C. United. "Clint works his butt off on both sides of the ball, and he's got a hunger," says teammate and fishing buddy Steve Ralston, who caught a half-dozen largemouth bass with Dempsey last week and then fed him an assist in a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday. "He can do everything, and he's always dangerous, winning tackles and playing good passes. The goals are just a bonus."
So too is Dempsey's crowd-pleasing showmanship, a sort of Latin flair with a Deep South flavor that you might call Brazilian barbecue. Already this season Dempsey has slow-cooked defenders with serial step-overs, diving headers and even a Cuauhtémiña--a preposterous move (named for its creator, Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco) in which an attacker escapes pressure by pinning the ball between his feet and bunny-hopping through traffic. Dempsey's goal celebrations have been just as entertaining. After his game-winner against D.C. last month he ran to the batter's box at RFK Stadium and mimed a slugger clouting a home run. Last week's strike saw Dempsey make like a B.A.S.S. master reeling in a big one.
Dempsey learned his improv skills in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he and his buddies would watch videos of Diego Maradona and play pickup soccer until dark--including a game they called World Cup, which requires the dribbler to take on four defenders and beat the keeper from behind a cone 10 yards away. "It was everybody for themselves, and it forced you to work on your ball skills, your endurance and your shooting," Dempsey says. "You'd have to always keep 'em guessing, use both feet and try different moves. We were just messing around, but that's how I got comfortable on the ball."
At the rate he's going, the stiffest challenge to Dempsey's MVP hopes may come from his being too good: With his influence on the national team growing (he already has five caps), he could miss as many as nine MLS games. Then again, Dempsey, who stands to make less than $100,000 this year, may not be long for the league. Last fall he trained with the Dutch club Feyenoord. "They told me they think I'm able to play at that level, but they didn't think I'd make an immediate impact after one year of pro soccer," Dempsey says.
Funny, a lot of people thought the same thing about Dempsey's chances in MLS. They certainly aren't saying that anymore. ■