Clint Dempsey proved “old-timers” still can make a difference in international soccer. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
This story is about a couple of thirtysomethings that have been icons of U.S. men’s soccer for years and why Bruce Arena is coach of the national team today and Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t.
It took a 34-year-old Clint Dempsey tying Landon Donovan’s U.S. international goal-scoring record at 57 in spectacular fashion in the 2-0 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal win over Costa Rica Saturday to remind us of it.
Back in 2014, Klinsmann deemed that a 32-year-old Donovan wasn’t good enough to make the U.S. squad for the World Cup in Brazil. Klinsmann supposedly had questioned commitment. Instead, he decided to take Mix Diskerud and Julian Green, then 19. Diskerud, who wore Donovan’s No. 10, did not see any action and essentially was a bust during his New York City FC tenure. Green scored on his first touch in the World Cup, but hasn’t blossomed into the player many observers thought he would be as he has struggled finding playing time in the Bundesliga, most recently with VfB Stuttgart.
In 2017, Arena had the vision of including Dempsey on the 40-man provisional roster and then bringing him in for the knockout round. After starting in the 2-0 quarterfinal victory over El Salvador Wednesday night, Dempsey came off the bench and was the difference maker in Saturday’s triumph over the Ticos, setting up Jozy Altidore’s goal and then connecting on a free kick to seal the result.
Now, Dempsey would rather be starting, but given his age — 34-years-old is considered ancient for an international striker in many quarters — the Seattle Sounder might be best suited for that role in the twilight of his outstanding, record-breaking career.
Like he has done before with other players, Arena was wise enough to see a 34-year-old’s value to his team.
In 2013, Donovan used the Gold Cup as a personal highlight reel and as vehicle to return to the national team after a self-imposed absence from the game. He demonstrated he was good enough to play in qualifiers. But when push came to shove the next year, Klinsmann decided to leave whom many considered the best American men’s player off the team, though Donovan probably could have come off the bench as a late-match impact player.
It’s ironic. In that same World Cup, Joachim Loew, who was Klinsmann’s assistant national coach at one time, used 36-year-old Miroslav Klose as a part-time starter and super sub for Germany en route to the championship.
Now, I know the Gold Cup is not the World Cup. That tournament is decidedly more difficult and Teams can’t bring in six new players in the greatest show on earth as the American side and any of the eight teams in the knockout round were able to do in this competition.
And, there are always different circumstances about players — how they age, injuries, recent form, etc. etc.
Assuming the U.S. qualifies for Russia 2018, we don’t know if Arena will select a 35-year-old Clint Dempsey to the team.
It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if Arena thinks hard and long on what Dempsey will bring to his side and not allow any personal history to interfere with his decision-making process.
That’s one reason why Bruce Arena is coaching the team today and Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t.