Jurgen Klinsmann outsmarted himself.
Looking to take a good player – Clint Dempsey – and make him the face of his team, Klinsmann bargained away the captain’s armband, and bet on that piece of cloth making Dempsey come out of his skin and lead.
There were a few problems with that strategy: First, no one really knows Dempsey.
No one could possibly have predicted that he would bolt from Tottenham and his stated long-term dream of playing in the Champions League for a dramatic MLS return with the Seattle Sounders.
No one saw Dempsey’s summer-2012 hissy fit coming, when he refused to play for Fulham and forced his way out the door at the very end of the transfer window.
Few predicted how far Dempsey would rise in European soccer, and fewer predicted what a miserable 2013 he would have after returning to MLS.
It’s over now, with zero fanfare, and so you may not be fully aware that Dempsey’s loan back to Fulham this winter was an undeniable, unmitigated disaster.
Over the course of two months, Dempsey registered one shot on goal. He didn’t score, or notch an assist. Near the end of the loan, he failed to make the bench for the worst club in the Premier League.
It was Dempsey out of orbit.
The sacrifice for those infuriating, soul-sapping couple of months? No preseason with the Seattle Sounders, which was one of the problems commonly attributed to Dempsey’s lackluster MLS play after joining the Sounders last year.
Dempsey also got virtually no rest, meaning he’s only had around a month off since the 2011-12 Premier League season ended.
Against Ukraine in Cypurs, Dempsey looked defeated and exasperated. He was totally ineffective and it would have been easy to miss him on the field until his frustration boiled over at the end of the game, when he was lucky to escape with no punishment from a scuffle with a Ukrainian player.
His body language, as it often does with Dempsey, told as much of the story as was discernable.
Dempsey isn’t in a good place right now, at least soccer wise, and it’s clearly affecting him.
This is the captain, remember.
Dempsey was the guy wearing the armband while Tim Howard hollered and scratched and clawed to organize a backline in shambles and keep the US in the game.
Klinsmann’s idea was give Dempsey the armband, and let the armband produce the leader. Normally, it’s just give the leader the armband.
So forget for a moment that Dempsey – the definition of enigmatic – couldn’t captain a Sunday League pub team as well as the bartender, just settle on this: The experiment didn’t work.
Since being named skipper, Dempsey has gone into a tailspin to the point that certain people are questioning whether he’s even a surefire starter in Brazil.
I’m not sure what Dempsey thinks of being captain – if he cares all that much – but quietly giving the armband to someone else before the clash with Ghana in Natal would be risky, but possibly worth it.
Klinsmann talks all the time about camaraderie in his team, and creating a controversy with his captain wouldn’t be the best thing for that. But can Dempsey’s morale get worse right now?
Other guys want the armband. Other guys got passed over for Dempsey in the first place.
Landon Donovan was the vice-captain in 2010. He’s lead the USA in everything, and has been the face of the national team for over a decade. He’s captained his club team almost his entire career, and to say he’s deserving of the national team honor – sabbatical or not – would be an understatement.
Donovan is still feeling out his role on the team. No one knows for sure if he’ll start this summer, and while his relationship with Klinsmann has gotten better since he rejoined the team for the 2013 Gold Cup, it’s not totally solid.
Donovan captained the team in February against South Korea, and here’s what he said about it: “I don’t know the statistics, but throughout my career, when I’m wearing the armband, I would guess that I play significantly better. And I take that role very seriously. I take it professionally and, again, someone can do the stats, but I think our team record is probably pretty good when that happens.”
By all accounts, Donovan has never been more mature as a player or person. He has the seniority and the job should have been his.
Tim Howard and Michael Bradley could easily have been named too.
Howard has been the US’ most consistent player over the Klinsmann era, not to mention their best player. Howard’s vocal leadership – something Dempsey hasn’t shown at all – is clear, as is Howard’s experience.
If not those two, Michael Bradley has future captain written all over him.
Bradley is a coach’s son, a two-way midfielder, and one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the national team. It was Bradley who stepped up in the media and steered the US out of a rough patch when the article about Klinsmann’s failings and dissension in the ranks came out before the Costa Riva game in March.
Those three lead. If Dempsey leads, he does it behind closed doors. But that’s never been the MO for a very talented player who can do great things when he’s on. Not all good players are cut out to lead.
Dempsey definitely doesn’t lead by example. You could see that much from the game against Ukraine.
Klinsmann played a dangerous game with the captaincy, and he struck out. And it should be noted that one of the controversies covered in that article was his poor treatment of the man he replaced as captain in the first place, the forgotten Carlos Bocanegra.
Who knows, maybe Dempsey figures out with Seattle in the two months before World Cup training camp starts.
But the US shouldn’t have to pray their captain shows up in a good mood in order to play his best for his country.
This isn’t a reflection on Dempsey the player – the US will need him to come up big in Brazil. But Dempsey the leader in nonexistent.
If Klinsmann wants, he can spread the armband around in the US’s three pre-World Cup sendoffs, and wipe the slate clean going into the tournament. Of course, leaders will lead regardless if they are named captain, but the armband means a lot in soccer, especially at a World Cup. The Americans need a real captain this summer.
Dempsey never earned the job. Now it’s time to take it away from him.