Kudos are clearly warranted for Clint Dempsey as he hits his second goal in as many weeks for Fulham FC. While his first professional coach and likely mentor, ex-Liverpool great Steve Nicol, might not immediately love that Clint helped Fulham take down Liverpool, it was clearly a significant achievement following a goal the prior week against wanna-be powerhouse Manchester City.
As a Revs fan, I was on the Dempsey bandwagon early. He brought swagger, skill, attitude and the honest work-rate of a rookie who was both earning his keep while still making waves. That same set of values transferred to the US National team as well, and has held down a steady starting role.
All is not perfect, in fact, I’ve been critical of Clint’s recent US National Team performances, where he seemed almost disinterested with his midfield role and only came alive when moved to forward. Funny thing though, even in games where that criticism is leveled on him, he often scores important goals. In some ways he’s turned into the USA’s Thierry Henry, a player who we always expect to do more than what is reasonable for our national side. (Ask a Frenchman if they think Henry is as good for France as he was for Arsenal or even is for Barcelona.)
More troubling for the US isn’t the ascendency of Clint into a stand-out professional but the fact that there are too few of his ilk. Now, to be fair, there are MANY proven US professionals making a difference both for MLS clubs and abroad. But, I’ll submit there what is lacking is any true “skill player” right now that is making an impact on the international scene.
There are many good summaries of US Players and their progress abroad and Steven Goff does an easy to digest version for the Washington Post here. Skim that list for a second, and it’s hard to suggest US players aren’t playing solid roles for their professional teams in international leagues.
Could we have a more impressive list of clubs? Sure.
Could more of the players be in “better” leagues? Yup.
But that’s not my primary concern right now. My primary concern is that of that long list of players, most of those seeing solid time are “workers” not “skill players.”
What’s my definition of a “skill player?” I cannot suggest it’s nailed down, in fact it’s a bit like pornography, I know it when I see it. When Dempsey does a feint, a back heel or whatever slick trick he has lined up, he brings that special something that is worth notice. He brings the kind of game that makes a kid go to the backyard and try to do the same thing – something we have far too little of. (Yes, as a US fan, I prefer he does these things well past the midway line and not leave us exposed – which has happened a number of times – but he’s young and still improving.)
While hard to define, I can offer some “skill player” boundaries though.
One easy place to start? Goalkeepers are clearly not in the list, they are their own animals.
Of the defenders in Goff’s list… maybe Michael Parkhurst counts, at least he’s not a destroyer in the classic sense – but he is no Maradona. (But as a self-revealed Revs fan, I am a bit biased.) Edgar Castillo is on the wait and see list. And let’s be honest, even skillful defenders are not going to represent the crème de la crème of skill for the majority of the playing world.
Let’s skip to the forwards… only two are listed as having seen time this weekend. Jozy Altidore and Kenny Cooper. Both have skills, but neither are magicians. Jozy only saw 30 minutes for a bad Premiership club (though he’s had a number of unrelated club issues) and Kenny only saw 15 minutes in the second division of Germany. Not setting the world on fire, either of them.
Freddy Adu is in that list – though he’s just as easily deployed as a midfielder or forward. A “skill player” if there ever was one – and one I really hope finds success. But, put plainly, he has not found success, consistency or playing time in any recent league or team. A real let down for US fans that want skillful creative soccer from our team.
(I’m saddened not to mention Charlie Davies, due to his very frightening and fatal – for others – car accident. I wish him a speedy recovery and acknowledge he was making a mark in Sochaux. He brings the attitude and workrate that Dempsey shows. However, in fairness, he was a speed-demon with a nose for goal, not a “skill player” in the sense I am searching for here. As many are, I am hopeful to see him back on the field to make that impact his recent run of form had promised.)
In the midfield – where for me the skill and magic lives – there are hopes outside of Dempsey. But nothing that makes the world stop and take notice. I like Michael Bradley, but he doesn’t fit my vague “skill player” definition, sorry. Feilhaber is undeniably skilled – but Aarhus isn’t a club anyone I know has as a poster on their wall – so international impact is not something we cam claim here. Torres has the skills, at least, I think (time will tell.) But as much as respect as I have for the Mexican league (I do) there is still a gulf between it and the top European leagues.
Then there is the odd case of Landon Donovan. Who knows what to say? He is clearly an impact midfielder with skill – perhaps the most of any US player. He makes an impact in MLS. How do we rate that? I am hardly a Euro-Snob and generally have no problem with our best players playing at home. But I’m the first to admit, scoring against Chivas USA isn’t the same as scoring against Liverpool, let alone Chivas Guadalajara. (If you doubt this, please watch this weekend’s playoff “LA Derby” good fun, hilarious defending.)
That leaves Clint. I’m happy we have an exceptional American to point to right now.
I’m sad he’s the American exception.