As American soccer standards have improved the past twenty years or so, the concerns over how to build a strong national team system have grown. Certainly, systematizing the program from the earliest youth levels to the senior pool makes considerable sense, and scouting has become more adaptive and sophisticated over that period. But while the search for the first American to become a true global superstar in the sport continues unabated, it is worth noting that the two Americans who are playing best abroad at the moment were not the direct products of the U.S. Soccer apparatus in their formative years.
In fact, Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez have followed remarkably parallel (and sometimes mirrored) career paths. By no means identical, neither man has fit the traditional mold of American professional soccer players, which has long been middle-class and based on training in prominent college programs or U.S. youth residency programs. Both players have spent time in MLS, and have brought more respect to Americans in the sport in their current respective leagues, than perhaps any American before them.
Dempsey and Gomez each come from modest upbringings, with Gomez growing up in Las Vegas and Dempsey in Eastern Texas. Much has been made of the fact that Dempsey honed his skills playing with Latino players, and it indeed seems likely he would thrive in the Mexican Primera if he ever wanted to play there. Meanwhile, Gomez has spent his career with one foot in American soccer and the other in the Mexican game. Rather than laud both for their goalscoring touch due to the so-called Latin style they grew up around, perhaps it makes more sense to consider that they have adapted a hybrid style that combines skill and creativity with work-rate and grit. Essentializing these attributes to national groups is rather reductive, but at the very least, having proficiency in at least two soccer cultures (and in the case of Dempsey, three if you include England) gives them a versatility that has served each player well.
But the hybrid doesn't stop there. Both players have adapted their game over the years, and been able to play as striker, withdrawn striker, winger, or central attacking midfielder as circumstances dictate. They have also had to deal with their fair share of adversity on the professional front: Gomez has battled back from several significant injuries that dampened his impact in MLS and caused him to bounce around teams. Since coming to Mexico in 2010, he has already played for four teams. Although players in the Mexican Primera move around frequently, Gomez has been unlucky in the circumstances in previous teams. With Pachuca, he was sold as part of a housecleaning following a poor season, although he played well when given the opportunity. His next club, Estudiantes Tecos, is practically guaranteed to be relegated at the end of this season, and selling Gomez on to Santos Laguna was a fantastic turn of events, as they are one of the best teams in the league. He didn't play early this season, as Santos have a deep attacking core, but he has played his way into the lineup and has been white-hot since getting regular minutes, scoring regularly in the league and CONCACAF Champions League for Santos.
Although Dempsey has not switched teams like Gomez and has been fortunate to stay healthy since moving to Fulham, he's also been buried in the depth chart under nearly every coach he's played for. He's had to win over each manager, and has done so successfully, to the point that he is the best player on the team this season. Considering the competition level of both the English Premier League and Mexican Primera, both in countries in which the sport is taken very seriously, the tenacity and willingness of both Dempsey and Gomez to continuously fight for a spot in the lineup has certainly fueled their success.
Perhaps the last major parallel between them is that they are not products of the hype machine, instead floating under the radar for years and only gradually emerging as outstanding players. Dempsey is 29 years old, while Gomez is 30 year, and while 2012 may ultimately represent the peak of their respective careers, their backgrounds, and winding career paths show that there are Americans who are still largely self-made, and we are all the better for it. Should U.S. Soccer continue to invest in youth infrastructure in order to unearth and mold the next superstar? Of course. But Gomez and Dempsey teach us that there is more than one way to build an American soccer star.