The argument as to which USMNT player ranks as the all-time best will undoubtedly continue through the ages, but in order to be considered, you must truly leave your stamp on international football. Ever since Jurgen Klinsmann named Clint Dempsey as the United States' captain more than a year ago, it became apparent that his legacy would hinge on how he played in his third World Cup.
And, as evidenced by his goal-scoring, Andrew W.K.-inspired performance in the 2-1 victory over Ghana on Monday, Dempsey appears dead set on seizing the moment.
The man called Deuce was not perfect. He never is. In fact, he was a non-factor for not insignificant stretches of the match. With his exhausted teammates clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the game, Dempsey attempted a back-heel pass to Aron Johannsson in midfield that resulted in a turnover. Yes, there were plenty of moments where Dempsey's critics were given ample ammunition.
Yet Dempsey's faults cannot overshadow his magnificent contribution to the U.S. win.
Update on Dempsey
The beginning of the match went beyond even most USMNT fans' wildest dreams. Before the game was even 30 seconds old, Jermaine Jones played a simple touch that put Dempsey into space. With the ball just slightly behind him, Dempsey deftly used the inside of his right foot to control, pushed it ahead, used the outside of his right foot to get past John Boye, brought it back across his body with his right foot again and unleashed a perfectly placed left-footed shot that banked in off the far post.
Just 29 seconds into the match, Dempsey had given the United States a lead -- and against one of their most bitter foes. And in doing so, Dempsey became the first American to score in three separate World Cups.
This goal, however, was different. The first two were surely memorable. The first came in 2006 when Dempsey slammed home a half-volley from DaMarcus Beasley. But that game ultimately ended in a loss to Ghana, resulting in the United States' elimination from the tournament. While that goal proved to be Dempsey's coming-out party, he was a mere bit player on that team.
USA vs. Ghana
Winning ugly is the American way
Did the United States play poorly against Ghana? No, not really. The United States played like the United States against Ghana.
USA vs. Ghana
Dempsey's other goal came against England in 2010. And although that allowed the U.S. to grind out a confidence-building 1-1 tie, it was not a pretty goal by any means, rolling as it did through the arms of Robert Green. The goal may have been important, but it was Landon Donovan who scored the United States' signature goal in South Africa.
While John Brooks' game-winner may well overshadow Dempsey's, the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history is in no danger of being forgotten.
That's partly because of the goal's sheer class, but it's also because of how it fits into Dempsey's overall performance. Around the half-hour mark, Boye smashed his shin into Dempsey's face, but he was able to play out the match. His determination to play on, despite not being able to breathe through his nose and while spitting out blood, speaks to a spirit that has made him such a fan favorite.
"I think my nose is broken," Dempsey said in his postgame comments. "I didn't consider coming off, I just wanted to go on for as long as I could, but I had trouble breathing. I was coughing up blood a little bit from the back of my throat, but I felt fine and that I could keep going. I did feel a little bit tired towards the end, but hopefully I'll be able to start breathing through my nose again before the next game."
Dempsey's unwillingness to yield paid dividends in the end. Klinsmann had already been forced to burn one sub when Jozy Altidore went down with a hamstring injury after 21 minutes, and another at halftime when Brooks replaced an ailing Matt Besler. If, say, Chris Wondolowski had stepped in for Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have never been able to spell Alejandro Bedoya. If Zusi had never entered, who delivers the corner on Brooks' game-winner?
With his goal, Dempsey seized his moment. His determination helped the United States fight back for the win. What might he be able to do with the ability to breathe freely? His moment was spectacular, but make no mistake -- Dempsey's legacy in Brazil is still being built.