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One Clint Dempsey goal changed the way I thought about American soccer players

When Dempsey announced his retirement, the first thing I thought about was THAT GOAL against Juventus.

Fulham v Juventus - UEFA Europa League Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

It was the second leg of a Europa League competition between Fulham and Juventus, and American star Clint Dempsey — who retired from soccer on Wednesday with a simple Instagram post — had subbed into the game with less than 20 minutes remaining.

Fulham and Juventus were miraculously tied on aggregate after a huge Fulham comeback, and with less than 10 minutes remaining, midfielder Dickson Etuhu played a bouncing ball up to the American. Dempsey, who had just substituted in for Fulham, took it out of the air well enough. One touch to settle away from the defense, then one touch on the right edge of the box. He snuck a glance at the net, saw that Juventus keeper Antonio Chimenti had drifted off his line. Then Dempsey chopped down with his right foot, and the ball sailed into the air, toward the back post.

Craven Cottage, as one, held its breath. Was he? Could he be?

Chimenti looked up and knew there was nothing to be done. The ball touched the post, then fell into the net. The stadium exploded. He had done it.

It feels wildly reductive to try and sum up a career as spectacular as Dempsey’s into one moment, but I promise it is done in good faith. There will be countless words written this week about his upbringing in Texas, the tragic death of his sister — a nationally ranked tennis player — at the age of 16, and how her death both allowed Dempsey to pursue his soccer dream and fueled him to achieve what no other American had ever achieved in the game before.

There will be thoughts on his college career at Furman, his breakthrough in MLS with the New England Revolution, his amazing run late in his career with Seattle Sounders, his tenure with Tottenham Hotspur as well as Fulham in the Premier League. There should be books written about what he meant to the USMNT over the years, how he was quietly their most creative player and an important leader for the better part of a decade.

But I want to talk about that goal. Let’s talk about that goal.

First, you need to understand the context. It was 2010. Clint Dempsey’s Fulham was playing Juventus in the Europa League. The tournament, the Champions League’s little brother, was a slight step down for a giant Juventus side in a rut and a cosmic leap forward for tiny Fulham, who were playing in their first European competition ever after sneaking into the Europa League thanks to a better-than-average Premier League season the year prior.

Juventus were a world class club, and in the first match of the two-leg tie looked like it, winning 3-1 at home. The following game looked like a formality for the Italian side, and when David Trezeguet scored for Juventus in the second minute, it looked over. They had a 4-1 aggregate lead and an away goal. It was done.

Then, in the 26th minute, Juventus star defender Fabio Cannavaro was issued a red card for a hard foul on Zoltan Gera. Playing up a man, Fulham scored. Then they scored again. And again. It was 3-1, and Juventus looked lost. Craven Cottage, Fulham’s small, old stadium by the Thames River, was rocking. Then, in the 71st minute, Clint Dempsey subbed on. And 11 minutes later he decided to chip a shot to the back post.

It’s tempting to just remember the goal for how important it was. The fact that it gave Fulham a win and catapulted them on a Europa League run that ended in a 2-1 loss in the final to Atletico Madrid.

But we should also just appreciate the goal for what it was. Forget the context. Just watch it. There’s that first touch. Then the audacity. The chip is impressive, yes. But it’s the fact that he tried it, that he even thought to try it, that makes the goal so special.

Some say it was an accident. A cross gone awry. To those people I say: Get the hell out of my article. Go on. Git. It wasn’t a cross. It was never a cross. He meant to do that.

He meant to do that because that is what Clint Dempsey was. That shot is exactly what made him special, what separated him from so many Americans who came before him.

Bruce Arena once said, lovingly, that Clint Dempsey was the type of player who “tries shit.” It sounds silly, but in the soccer world, I promise you it’s high praise. It meant that Dempsey was unafraid. He had vision. He had creativity. He was willing to make a fool of himself, something true of most great artists. He wasn’t content to make the right play. He wanted to make something beautiful.

There are precious few American soccer players in our history who have been guys who were unafraid to try shit. Claudio Reyna tried shit. Nowadays, Christian Pulisic will try shit. Darlington Nagbe sometimes will. It’s a short list, something special and rare in this country. Soccer games are often rote affairs, players making the right decision over and over again, or trying to make the right decision and failing to.

Sometimes, to break open a game, or to beat a team like Juventus, you need to make the wrong decision. You need to try some shit.

I’ve made the argument before that this goal was a tipping point in how Europeans viewed American soccer players. I’m not so sure that’s true now. Dempsey had been doing good work for Fulham for awhile when he scored that goal. Before him at the club, Brian McBride was a club hero. Americans had succeeded in the Premier League, even outside the goalkeeper position, and plenty of knowledgeable fans knew that.

Dempsey’s goal didn’t convince Europeans that Americans could play soccer. Rather, I think it convinced a lot of Americans that Americans could play soccer. Here was one of our own, playing against Italian giants, and he had produced that. It was a moment of validation, of inspiration.

Dempsey wasn’t some cliche of a soccer player, either. He was a kid from Texas who liked rap music and fishing and, in this game at least, had a black eye, and he had created a moment of beauty we never thought possible. For me, at least — an American soccer fan and Fulham nut who had grown up watching and playing in thousands of games — it’s the single most memorable and important goal in my life. It re-defined, for me, what I thought an American could do on a soccer field.

If you will indulge me, and go back to play the video a second time, I implore you not to watch, but rather to listen to the crowd as Dempsey shoots the ball. The murmur of the crowd goes dead as he puts his right foot through it. Pure silence. It lasts maybe a quarter of a second. Seriously, go listen. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. No one makes a sound.

As it sails to the back post, you can hear as part of the crowd begins to understand what is happening. There’s a sharp inhalation. Had he? He couldn’t have ... Then the ball hits the post. Another half moment, as a stadium processes it in real time, then the release.

Four thousand miles away, in a dingy living room in New Orleans, the replay of the goal was playing on a loop on my laptop, fed from a grainy, illegal stream. There was no one around to watch it, though. I was already a half block away, running down the middle of street, surely freaking out my neighbors as I raised my fists to the sky and screamed the man’s name.