Clint Dempsey: Antihero

Clint Dempsey is a polarizing figure. Though the captain of the USMNT and one of the highest-scoring Americans in World Cup history, Dempsey isn’t showered with adulation. The perception exists that Dempsey is a punk and a cheap-shot artist. In the most recent edition of MLS.com’s highly entertaining Instant Reply, Simon Borg builds on that narrative.

First off, we should acknowledge the complex web of perception converging around Dempsey. Since his successful run in the EPL, including the 23-goal season at Fulham and his signing with a top-flight team like Tottenham, and World Cup glory, Dempsey is the biggest star in American soccer. I am not saying the best American player, but the biggest, most recognizable American soccer celebrity. If your NASCAR-loving uncle can name one current member of the USMNT, odds are it’s Deuce, “oh yeah, that guy from the deodorant commercial.”

But Deuce doesn’t act the way we expect our megastars to act. He is no Derek Jeter. He is no Peyton Manning. Hell, he isn’t even a T.O. Dempsey is neither squeaky clean nor a consummate entertainer. We expect our star athletes to fall into a few set categories: Mr. Clean, Mr. Entertainer, Mr. Troubled-But-Talented. Think of any huge sports star from the last couple of years and I can easily pop them into one of the three categories. But not Dempsey. I think that is hard for most Americans to digest.

Dempsey just does his job and does it well. We should respond to that blue-collar ethos, but we don’t recognize it in our megastars. And Deuce is not an easy guy to like. On T.V. he is withdrawn and sullen with the media, and he plays the game pissed. He comes off downright surly. He doesn’t pander, or laugh, or kiss babies or anything.

Back to Simon Borg. In Instant Replay, Borg claims Dempsey takes a couple of cheap shots at NYCFC. The footage is far from conclusive, but Borg is persistent that Dempsey is committing acts that endanger the safety of his opponent. Borg fails to mention that Dempsey’s safety was already being endangered.

Like hockey and baseball, soccer needs to be self-policed. Whether two blue-liners are dropping their gloves or a pitcher is throwing a retaliatory strike, athletes have always followed a rugged code of fairness. The ref can only catch so much, and, especially MLS refs, miss so much. Flopping and thugging become, unfortunately, part of the game. If the ref isn’t watching close enough, a dirty player may try to gain an advantage with a kick-out or a loose elbow at his opponent. The victim of such extracurriculars is expected, within the untold law of the game, to embellish and flop and thus try to gain his own advantage, or, at the very least, force the ref to pay attention.

Dempsey don’t play that. Since his return to MLS, Dempsey has been fouled. A lot. But he is not one to flop. He is, for better or worse, one to retaliate. Everyone remembers his famous cup-check on Toronto FC’s Mark Bloom.

What is forgotten is the context. Toronto made hamburger of the Sounders, fouling Seattle, mostly Deuce, 25 times in that game. The ref didn’t have control of the match and Deuce went a little medieval. It’s not cool to slap a dude’s nuts, but self-policing is part of the game if the refereeing fails.

Already this season Dempsey has had his nuts stomped, his head bonked and his Achilles slashed. The man is a punching bag out on the pitch, and yeah, he gets cranky. In the NYCFC game, on a miniscule pitch, Deuce was a pinball out there, absorbing hits and bouncing around (and took a flailing leg from Ned Grabavoy right before Borg’s first cited incident). Does that justify him acting out? No. But let’s not pretend Deuce is some villain out looking to hurt people. He is just continuing a long-held tradition in sports and America by meting out some frontier justice.

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