Just over 14 months ago, the U.S. Men’s National Team needed a major boost. Having lost 2-1 to Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the USA’s World Cup qualification campaign had temporarily stalled, and though the situation wasn’t dire, it wasn’t ideal, either.
With Jurgen Klinsmann bringing a steady stream of new faces to the full National Team to increase competitiveness at every position, a leader was needed to show those newcomers the way.
Two weeks after the loss in Honduras, Klinsmann named Clint Dempsey captain.
The appointment came as a surprise to some. Dempsey had not served as captain for any of his previous U.S. MNT appearances, outside of a brief stint in the second half of a game in 2010. Dempsey had pedigree, but wasn’t especially vocal on the field or off of it.
Judging by results, he didn’t need to be.
Since Dempsey’s appointment as captain, the U.S. posted a stellar 7-1-1 record to close World Cup qualifying en route to the Hexagonal title, and the USA went on to set a record with 16 victories in 2013.
“When Jurgen named me captain, I just tried to lead the best way I knew how to,” Dempsey said on Friday in New York City. “I think we’re lucky in the sense of having a lot of experienced players on the team, so I can use their leadership, as well. I can feed off them.”
Though players continued to cycle in and out of a competitive National Team pool, an identity began to emerge among the leaders on the squad. And it is exactly that mix of leadership styles that has taken hold of the U.S. National Team since Dempsey’s appointment. Where some, like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, can be very vocal with their teammates, Dempsey's strategy comes down to one overlying ethos: play hard.
“Clint’s not gonna be a guy that’ll come in and rah-rah the team or anything like that,” said Brad Davis. “But when he steps on the field, he’s definitely a guy that you want to go to work with. You know he’s going to fight, you know he’s going to battle, you know he’s going to have your back, and you know he’s capable without a doubt of making that special play.”
That isn’t to say that there’s no room for friendships, of course. Alejandro Bedoya and Dempsey in particular have formed a close bond. And while ultimately all players must work together on the field, having a connection off of it certainly doesn’t hurt.
“I don’t know if many teams have that chemistry, so to speak,” Bedoya said. “I think it makes a difference that we’re able to hang out with each other outside the field. We all keep in touch with each other and follow each other’s games, and things like that.”
Even off the field, many of the team’s veterans can act as sounding boards for the squad’s younger members. DaMarcus Beasley, for example, can draw on the experience of three previous World Cups to help the younger generation of players (including three under 21 years of age: DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, and John Brooks). For all these players, the World Cup will be here and gone in a flash, and the key to being successful may lie in areas outside the field of play.
“I tell them to enjoy the things off the field with your family. Enjoy the things we do as a team.” Beasley said. “Enjoy everything about the World Cup. Embrace it. Take it all in. Obviously when it’s time to work, to concentrate, with games and training, you do that. When you have your down time, enjoy it. You never know when you’ll ever be in another World Cup and you’ll always remember this moment for your whole life.”
These players currently find themselves in a whirlwind couple of months that will see them travel further, play harder and be under more pressure than at any other point in their careers. But experienced voices will to guide them through the journey. And as captain, Dempsey leads those voices.
“It’s been pretty crazy, and at times it’s been hard. It’s been overwhelming,” said Yedlin. “But it’s like Clint told me, you just gotta take it day by day. You get caught up in thinking about the past or the future too much, and it’s going to play with your head.”