Clint Dempsey: The Finisher
Credit: Photograph by Carlos Serrao

Clint Dempsey has scored some killer goals in his 10-year career: the dazzling chip-shot against Italian titans Juventus in 2010; the sliding jab that put away Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup – a stunning upset of the soon-to-be world champs. But of all his many goals – 36 and counting for the U.S. national team (number two all-time) and 57 more in the English Premier League (the most by an American ever) – perhaps the most quintessential, the most Dempsey-ish, was the one he scored against England in the 2010 World Cup: a skittering shot launched from 25 yards out, which goalkeeper Robert Green then comically bungled to tie the game. It wasn't the prettiest shot, or probably the smartest – to be honest, it was damn lucky. But Dempsey has always been adept at creating his own luck. Or, as the former U.S. coach Bruce Arena once put it: "He tries shit."

An attacking midfielder with a wicked right foot, Dempsey loves trying shit: ambitious volleys, diving headers. As a goal-scorer, he's something of an opportunist, knocking in loose balls and back-post runs as opposed to highlight-reel-quality strikes. Discussing his strategy, he sounds almost Moneyball-esque: "You've got to play the percentages," he says. "The closer you are to the goal, the better your chance of scoring – so I try to be in the box as much as possible." It's precisely the approach he'll take this summer in Brazil, in order to maximize what will surely be scarce opportunities in the U.S.'s Group of Death. But, says Dempsey, pushing up the sleeve of his T-shirt to reveal a full arm of tattoos, he's excited for the challenge. "A chance to play in three World Cups?" he marvels. "As a kid, I never thought that would happen. I just wanted the opportunity to play in one."

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Dempsey's story is a classic underdog tale: He grew up in a trailer in Nacogdoches, Texas, the fourth of five kids, with a dad who laid track for the railroad and who later became a carpenter, and a mom who was a nurse. His first exposure to soccer came when he saw some neighborhood kids kicking a basketball on a dirt field. Soon his parents were driving him to practice in Dallas three nights a week – three hours each way – and making sacrifices to save for club fees and gas money. (His mom took extra shifts at the hospital; his dad sold his gun collection to make ends meet.) "I didn't have a college fund growing up," Dempsey says. "[Sports] was our only way of setting ourselves up for college."

Perhaps as a result, Dempsey has always played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. "I always felt like I had to prove myself," he says. "I was never seen as a top prospect." He developed a reputation as a fierce, sometimes angry competitor: In 2004, playing for the MLS' New England Revolution, he played two games with a broken jaw, and two years later he was suspended by the same team after getting into a fistfight with a teammate at practice. He has broken one opponent's jaw and the cheekbone of the famously tough John Terry, England's captain. And earlier this year, he was suspended for two games following a below-the-belt smack against an opponent – "just a little cup check," he says with a wink.

After graduating to the English Premier League, in 2007, Dempsey built a stellar seven-year career for himself, possibly the best of any American ever. But last August he shocked fans on both sides of the Atlantic by exiting his contract with Tottenham Hotspur and signing with the Seattle Sounders of the MLS. The move was the beginning of a small trend, as his U.S. teammates Omar Gonzalez and Michael Bradley also chose America over Europe in the following months. But it left many observers scratching their heads: Why leave one of the top clubs in one of the best leagues in the world for America – even for a reported $6.7 million a year?

But to hear Dempsey tell it, it was just time. He missed Thanksgiving and Tex-Mex, and he wanted to raise his kids "in the States, the way I was raised – playing T-ball, basketball, flag football." He also wanted to fish: He grew up bass fishing with his father ("It reminds me of home"), but the fishing in England left something to be desired. "I got to fish during the off-season," he says, "but I missed the spawn in February and March, which is the best time to catch the biggest fish." Now in Seattle, he has a house near Lake Washington, where he can take his family whenever he wants: "Just fill up the cooler, light a campfire, and hang out," he says.

This summer in Brazil, Dempsey will try to become the first American to score in three different World Cups. He turned 31 in March, so he knows this could be his last: "You don't want to be that guy who's hanging on and taking a spot from somebody else," he says. "But at the same time, you want to play as long as you can. You just have to listen to your body. And at the moment," he says, "I'm feeling good."