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Clint Dempsey’s new USMNT role is his perfect fit

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Being a game-changing substitute is the perfect place for Dempsey to be right now.

United States v Costa Rica: Semifinal - 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Clint Dempsey is an absolute legend for the United States men’s national team, and is arguably the best-ever player to step on the pitch for the stars and stripes. But at 34 years old, “Deuce” is clearly slowing down a bit, and he can’t be relied on to be the every-minute megastar he’s been for the USMNT in the past. In helping the USMNT win the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, though, he showed everyone what his best role moving forward is.

Dempsey started the semifinal match against Costa Rica on the bench after going 90 minutes against El Salvador in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, not being able to make consecutive big-game starts at this point in his career. What he could do, though was come in in the 66th minute to help push a flagging USMNT attack to the next level, helping take a team that had struggled to make that last push at goal and get it to the winning result it had to achieve.

The U.S. had been getting good results with Darlington Nagbe stepping up in the middle of the pitch to run the show in the final third, but they still were struggling with that final ball and extra bit of quality to break Costa Rica’s defense. They were definitely on top in terms of attacking quality, and had been since Jordan Morris’ clanged shot off the post just seconds into the match, but the USMNT had no goals to show for it.

Enter Clint Dempsey.

That silky assist came just five minutes after Dempsey stepped onto the pitch, showing that he definitely still has the quality he needs to get the job done when the situation warrants. And given how explosively the UMSNT improved after he came on, winning 2-0 on the strength of his record-tying 57th national team goal in the 82nd minute, it seems that Bruce Arena has found the perfect spot for his aging star.

Then look at Dempsey’s performance in the Gold Cup final against Jamaica, coming on early in the second half to try to rescue the United States after giving up a painful equalizer. He instantly pushed the USMNT attack into a higher gear, creating several near-miss chances before finally setting up a chance for club teammate Jordan Morris to convert for the tournament-winning goal:

Not starting Dempsey in must-win USMNT matches would have been heresy just a couple of years ago, but at this point in his career saving his energy and quality for the later minutes when he can make the most impact is the best call for the sake of the team. He’s not as mobile as he once was, and can’t run as hard as he once could, but set up the right situations and get the ball to his feet, and Dempsey can still make magic happen when it counts the most.

The best part is that Dempsey seems perfectly happy to occupy this role for the U.S. at this point in his international career, seeming to understand that especially in the grind of CONCACAF, it’s better for the team to have someone else do the hard running early in the game, then use him late as the closer. That recipe worked to perfection against Costa Rica, and going forward there’s every reason to think that it can continue to work at a high level.

It’s a shame that we can’t always get the snarky, fight-filled Deuce that American fans are used to, but he can still be a massive and valuable asset to the USMNT when he’s used the right way. On Saturday night, we saw exactly what that looks like, and as his career winds down that’s a very, very good thing for the American national team to have until he hangs up his cleats.