A funny thing happened as the U.S.'s Clint Dempsey started scoring goals, serially and spectacularly, for Fulham this season. Eventually the man known as Deuce was no longer aspiring to reach the highest level of goal scorers in one of the world's top leagues; he'd made it. Dempsey has found the net 22 times in all competitions through last week, a mark eclipsed among Premier League players only by Arsenal's Robin van Persie, Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Manchester City's Sergio Agüero. That trio is worth a quarter-billion dollars on the transfer market. Dempsey's value is estimated at $16 million.
For a 29-year-old Texan who went eighth in the 2004 MLS draft, Dempsey's rise to the sport's elite has been a long time coming. "It seems like you have a few more hurdles when you're an American," says Dempsey, who moved from the New England Revolution to the Premier League side on a $4 million transfer in January 2007. "I feel I have to do it consistently, even though I feel like every year I've bettered myself." Progress hasn't always come easily. Dempsey has played for five managers at Fulham, each of whom (aside from current boss Martin Jol) has forced him to win his starting position.
No American has been in a scoring zone like the one Dempsey has inhabited since the start of 2012: 13 goals in 17 matches, including two hat tricks in the space of two weeks in January. Since he isn't a prototypical striker—Fulham has deployed him as a wide midfielder, a withdrawn forward and occasionally a lone striker—he uses instincts and smarts to put himself in the right spots on the field. In many ways Dempsey is a classic poacher. He'll score by latching onto through-balls or crosses, or cleaning up goalkeeper spills. He's also lethal in the air—he's scored five times on headers. And he earns his goals. Only one of his 22 has come from the penalty spot, compared to nine of 33 for Rooney. "When I see someone with time and space on the ball, I'm always trying to run behind the back line and get a ball in a position to score," Dempsey says. "When the ball's out wide, I'm always trying to get into the box." That strategy has carried over to the international level. Dempsey's confident and subtle finish was the difference in the U.S.'s 1--0 win against Italy in February.
Much has been made of the U.S.'s inability to produce a superstar field player, and yet Dempsey is now closing in on that status. The next step is to play in the UEFA Champions League, an opportunity that mid-table Fulham is unlikely to provide. "All you can do is make the most of where you're at," says Dempsey, who has maintained for years that he'd like to experience Champions League football. "What if you go to a different team and you're knocked out after one or two games? It would have to be the right situation." Based on his sterling season, a move to a bigger team this summer—several of the giants in England have been mentioned, as well as Roma in Italy—would make sense. Dempsey has one more year on his contract at Fulham. It would be a shame if he never got to test himself in Europe's signature competition.