When the U.S. Men’s National Team arrived in Houston on Monday, a swarm of local media flocked to Texas native Clint Dempsey to get his thoughts ahead of Wednesday night’s Gold Cup semifinal against Panama (Live on FOX Soccer and Univision at 7 p.m. ET).
For Dempsey, the informal press conference concluded a whirlwind 48 hours that included a wedding, an emotional remembrance and a win that brought the U.S. here to Houston.
The story begins prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, when Dempsey approached U.S. head coach Bob Bradley with a special request to be excused from the team the day after the conclusion of group play in Kansas City to attend his sister Crystal’s June 18 wedding. The request was granted to Dempsey and Landon Donovan, whose twin sister was coincidentally also being married on that Saturday. Both players would return to Washington, D.C., in the early morning hours before Sunday’s quarterfinal against Jamaica.
“There are times that players come to you with personal requests,” Bradley said. “As a coach you have an idea of how you think things should be done. That’s especially true at the national team. You try to hold the bar as high as you can.
“At the same time, you understand what families mean to them. You have to sometimes weigh things and make decisions. Ultimately after speaking at different points with Clint and Landon, I knew how important both of these days were for them. There’s give and take. You always try to do what’s best for the team, and you make tough decisions.”
The humble Dempsey regularly credits his family’s importance and the sacrifices they made for his pursuit of soccer. His parents often drove him three hours each way from their home in Nacogdoches to play club soccer in Dallas as he was growing up.
“My sister, she’s important to me, you know?” Dempsey said after the Jamaica game concluded. “My family is very important. I’m going to go make sure that I’m there for her on that day. Without my family I wouldn’t be here. They sacrificed a lot for me, for my sisters, my brothers.”
While the U.S. team was training Saturday at RFK Stadium with Panama looming, Dempsey took some time with his immediate family. And of course there are the cousins and aunts and uncles that are part of a wedding celebration and who Dempsey, a London resident while playing at Fulham, rarely gets to see. Among all the hugs and hellos, he was keeping his 11 p.m. flight to Washington and the next day’s business in the back of his mind.
But earlier that day, between the ceremony and reception, there was one more thing that the Dempsey family needed to see to that will no doubt be closer to his heart than any goal he’s scored. Dempsey and his family visited the grave of his sister, Jennifer, who was four years older than Clint and died of a brain aneurysm at age 16. Twenty-four hours later, Dempsey recounted for the media how his sister Crystal laid her bridal bouquet on the tombstone.
“That was a special moment that I got to share with my family,” he said.
By 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Dempsey was headed to the airport where a private charter flight arranged by U.S. Soccer was waiting to whisk him to the nation’s capital.
Immediately, the focus of one of the top U.S. scoring threats returned to the soccer field, where kickoff against Jamaica was coming up just 13 hours after he landed. Dempsey had a conversation with Bradley at the team’s hotel in Arlington, Va., in the morning, and told the U.S. head coach that he was “ready to go.”
“I was going to make sure that I could be there (for the wedding) day, but at the same time I was going to use that as motivation to come out here and let that not be an excuse for taking away from my game.,” Dempsey said. “I thought I was able to play like I always play.”
As part of a line of three attacking midfielders, Dempsey didn’t miss a beat in the game against Jamaica. After all, a two hour flight half a day before a game isn’t something that would faze a player who journeyed three hours by car to play games 10 years earlier.
Dempsey played the entire 90 minutes with energy and precision. He twice had shots from distance tipped over the crossbar by Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, and in the first half nearly scored the goal of the year as a bicycle attempt went over the crossbar. In the 80th minute, Juan Agudelo set up Dempsey alone in the penalty area against Ricketts. With a quick sidestep, the U.S. No. 8 got free from the goalkeeper and left-footed his 21st career goal into the net.
“I was disappointed with my performance against Guadeloupe, that I wasn’t able to finish the chances that I got,” Dempsey said. “I wanted to make sure that I came out today and did whatever I could to help the team win, and I was able to get the goal that sealed it.“
With the victory delivered, Dempsey has now returned to Texas, where the focus is also now on him.