June 25, 2018 - Opinion | The Kind of Kid America Needs if We Want a World Cup

For America to achieve soccer greatness, we’ll need another, better Clint Dempsey.

By Hanif Abdurraqib 
Mr. Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic.

This article originally appeared and has been reposted from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/world-cup-clint-dempsey-american-soccer.html

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The goal itself was not spectacular, beyond the stage it happened on, the team it happened against and the back story of the man who scored it: When the United States opened their 2010 World Cup against England, the match didn’t begin well. The Americans gave up a goal within five minutes. But then, later on, a messy bit of magic occurred.

About 25 yards from goal, the veteran attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey slung a powerful strike. The ball skipped violently along the wet grass, flicking up droplets as it sped toward the English goalkeeper, ricocheted off his surprised hands and lurched into the goal.

The game ended in a 1-1 draw, but by humbling the British, Dempsey’s goal has gone down as one of the great moments in Yankee soccer. It was a mistake of goalkeeping, to be sure. But such a simple description would also strip the goal of what truly made it: how Dempsey whipped around England’s captain Steven Gerrard in one direction and then another (almost like a spin move in basketball) before finding a small pasture of green from which to shoot — it was all in Clint Dempsey’s awkward, unlikely way of finding space for himself.

His presence on the world stage was always unlikely: To witness his malleable athleticism in that 2010 moment was to also catch a glimpse of an American soccer that has only existed in short spurts and that could be more broadly unleashed if guys like Dempsey were the norm in years to come. Guys who did not come from a traditional soccer background, laced with suburban amenities and paths cobbled by upper-middle-class privilege. With the United States left out of the World Cup, it seems more self-defeating than ever that this small social strata is the class that America’s elite soccer system caters to best at the expense of millions who, if given an equal opportunity, could excel.

In 2013, an economics professor at the University of Chicago compared data from the hometown ZIP codes of top N.B.A. and N.F.L. players with that of the men’s national team for soccer. He called the results “striking.” The places soccer players were from were substantially richer, college educated and white.

Clint Dempsey’s roots are in Nacogdoches, Tex., about three hours from Dallas. Although he is white, having grown up in a trailer behind his grandparents’ house, he is an anomaly among national team stars. To have a chance at making it, Dempsey, now 35, had to take six-hour round trips three times a week just to practice with his club squad, on top of weekend travel. At home, he played pickup games with the Mexican-American men who worked and lived around his neighborhood.

His family, already stretched thin financially, cut costs and relied on the kindness of other families to help Dempsey stay on his private club team — a phenomenon that, much like charity at large, is thankfully not rare but also not a substitute for systemic changes.

According to research conducted by Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova, the sliver of American families with incomes over $100,000 a year “produce 35 percent of youth soccer players. Conversely, the 25 percent of families with incomes below $25,000 account for only 13 percent of youth soccer players.” The private club system can come with, among other expenses, four-figure club fees and five-figure travel costs. Of the 40 percent of players who leave soccer in their teens, many do so for financial reasons.

During a particularly tight financial stretch, Dempsey’s parents were attempting to fulfill his ambitions in addition to those of his older sister Jennifer, a promising tennis prospect. When she was 16 and Clint was 12, Jennifer died of a brain aneurysm.

That death was probably the thing to afford Clint Dempsey a future in American soccer is both haunting and heartbreaking. This — the reason he points to the sky with a calm across his face after each goal he scores — has to be a singular kind of pain.

Playing on the dustier fields of his area’s so-called Mexican leagues, Dempsey learned a type of inventiveness and creativity with little refereeing and few tactical rules — free of stale American restrictions. But what neither Dempsey nor his Mexican-American neighbors had was something many young Mexican talents and prodigious players in other successful soccer countries do: a comprehensive, holistically subsidized training program.

This is the way France, Portugal, Argentina and others have built a stable of world-class players. Bringing boys of humble beginnings through a professional team’s youth program and letting them establish themselves through immersive long-term mentorship — all done with the aim of landing them in the highest leagues: the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue Un.

In the States, Latin-American and European-style youth systems are still in their infancy despite improvements. So the ticket to the pros has usually been through college ball, which is less competitive and notoriously expensive.

Dempsey, for one, went to play at Furman University in South Carolina. He was only able to secure his place in college, and thus his spot on the team, by earning a rare full scholarship after a spectacular rookie season. Beating the odds for most collegiate players, he would make the pros in 2004 and the national team in the same year.

Dempsey’s game, like his life, is born of labor and hard-won luck, and it showed on the pitch throughout his career. Maybe it’s because of this scrappiness that he never quite got the adulation his statistics merited. For the national team, he is tied for all-time leading goal scorer. And he is the American with the most successful overseas career: Playing in the English Premier League, the best in the world, he totaled 57 goals. Nonetheless, Dempsey — an on-again off-again rapper and largemouth-bass fisher — never became the promoted face, or soul, of American soccer.