The man wore crocodile boots, a white cowboy hat and a belt buckle the size of a license plate. Clint Dempsey doesn't remember his full name—hell, nobody in Nacogdoches, Texas, does—but you couldn't miss him on the sidelines of Nac-town's Mexican League games, amid the cigar smoke and the fajita carts and the horchata peddlers. He was the guy betting cash money on the cocky 15-year-old gringo to beat men more than twice his age, proud men from Mexico and El Salvador who'd throw you to the East Texas dirt for trying a fancy move on them. Sixty, eighty, one hundred dollars! The man kept wagering, and Dempsey's team, Zamora, kept winning. "He called me," says Dempsey, "his Little Rooster."
Years before he would score in the World Cup for the U.S., the Little Rooster swallowed his fear, unleashing all the tricks he'd seen in his Diego Maradona highlight videos and noodled on in his grandma's backyard with his older brother, Ryan. Stepovers, nutmegs, dipsy-dos: The Little Rooster had everything, even moves without names, moves nobody had seen before. Childhood friend Frankie Rivera recalls one Mexican League game when Dempsey "did some kind of weird trick—it was so awesome—and the guy got mad and spit in his face. Clint just went at him. He had three guys trying to fight him, but he did good. He did good."
And when the Little Rooster scored goals, he wouldn't hold back on his foes. "He'd run around to the faces of all of them," says Dempsey's mother, Debbie.
"They'd be so mad," says his father, Aubrey. "They'd scream and holler."
Says Dempsey, "I'm surprised I didn't get stabbed out there."
When Clinton Drew Dempsey, the U.S.'s most inventive and unpredictable soccer player, joined the national team in 2004, then coach Bruce Arena summarized his primary asset in three words: "He tries s---." It's an approach common in Latin America, where kids often learn the game on the streets, and rare among U.S. players, who are channeled into organized soccer from an early age. Dempsey's style is self-taught, intuitive, like a jazzman's. "It's a little bit of Pete Maravich," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "Clint's capable of making an attacking play that's a little different, that can create an advantage, that can lead to a goal. To have a player who can come up with something different at the right time, that's still such a special part of soccer."
As it happened, Bradley was in the stands at London's Craven Cottage on March 18 when Dempsey delivered his version of Thelonious Monk's Straight, No Chaser. In the final minutes of a Europa League round of 16 game against Italy's mighty Juventus, Dempsey's Fulham needed a goal to complete a remarkable four-goal comeback and advance. Stationed just outside the penalty box, Dempsey received a pass with his back to the goal and took two touches while moving to the right, creating a pocket of space. Still, it wasn't a dangerous position. Dempsey was facing the sideline, with the Juventus goal 20 yards away over his left shoulder. His defender was closing, and his momentum—like that of a quarterback scrambling to his right—would prevent him from putting much force behind a shot.
"Something told me just to go for it. What do you have to lose?" says Dempsey. "When you come on as a substitute, you have to take shots. Otherwise why are you playing in the game?" Ruling out a near-post attempt, Dempsey hit an audaciously delicate, no-look chip to the far post. "I knew where the goal was, because when I'm looking at the ball you can see the side of the goal," Dempsey says. "I didn't know the keeper was out. I just hoped he was off his line. Lucky for me, he was."
With his right foot Dempsey clipped the ball like a Phil Mickelson lob wedge. "If you know Clint, you know what he's trying," says Bradley, who rose from his seat, "and now the ball is sort of sitting up there for a second." Time froze. Dempsey compares the feeling to the one you get when you've released a bowling ball and think you can still control it with your body language before it hits the pins. Goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti could only look skyward and hope the ball sailed over the crossbar. But slowly, slowly, slowly, it fell into the net, with the softness of a baby's breath.
Bedlam. "There's no better feeling than getting crunk after scoring an important goal," says Dempsey, whose celebration with his teammates and fans practically tore the roof off the old barn. Fulham would advance to the Europa League final, the biggest accomplishment in the club's 131-year history, but the goose-bump moment will always be Dempsey's strike—the finest big-game goal ever scored by an American in European club soccer. "It's not just that not many American players would have tried to do that," says Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer. "Not many players outside of South America would have even thought about it."