As you recall, Clint Dempsey loves to show off. But you never thought that he would take it as far as “abusing” a match official under the flashing lights of the U.S. Open Cup. Nevertheless, that was the case when his Seattle Sounders were bounced from the tournament by their Cascadian neighbors, the Portland Timbers, two weeks ago. Dempsey was handed a three-match ban by Major League Soccer, and a full two-year suspension from playing in the U.S. Open Cup.
As a result of his outbursts (rappers these days, SMH), Dempsey has been stripped of the captain’s armband by U.S. men’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Michael Bradley will take on the formal leadership duties in Dempsey’s place during the upcoming Gold Cup.
When video of Dempsey confronting the referee and tearing up his notebook spread, reactions ranged from “Holy shit, that’s the funniest thing I’ve seen this season. How fast can I get these #ThugLife jokes off?” to “Dear God, sports in America has gone to hell. Our nation is doomed by entitled athletes.” Perhaps in fear of appearing to lean more towards the former while at the helm of the good ship Sports Patriotism, Klinsmann made the captaincy switch he thought was necessary.
He explained his rationale quite plainly – an unusual trick for the normally equivocal coach:
“I had a very, very good conversation with Clint about what happened during the Open Cup, but also about how we want to approach things. For the time being we thought it’s the best thing to give the captaincy to Michael Bradley and let Clint focus on what he’s all about.”
“We need Clint in a free spirit and that’s why we decided to kind of take that captaincy and move it over to Michael for the Gold Cup and then we’ll see.”
This is a very fair and responsible response from Klinsmann, if you are a fan who holds the idea of U.S. national team captaincy in high regard. It’s also a very safe one. No one without some sort of unwavering bias against Klinsmann can offer a reasonable criticism to temporarily removing Dempsey from the leadership role on a team meant to represent an entire nation.
Where Klinsmann’s thought process gets interesting is in his ideas of Dempsey and “what he’s good at.” The head coach elaborated on the thought and how it relates to Dempsey place with national team going forward.
“Clint is about scoring goals. We need Clint Dempsey badly with the National Team. We need him in a good spirit.”
In plain English, and without even being asked directly, Klinsmann explains why, despite punishment coming down from both MLS and U.S. Soccer, Clint Dempsey was not suspended from the national team: he doesn’t believe the United States can win the Gold Cup without him. It’s a refreshing level of pragmatism and honesty in an era where fans and media alike crave heavy-handed justice for misbehaving athletes in the name of sending messages and “doing what’s right.”
In today’s coverage climate, administrator of teams and leagues are judged as if they are responsible for shaping society as a whole. The idea of taking away someone’s livelihood, if only momentarily, is run through the “it’s just sports” filter that gets applied when it fits a chosen viewpoint or outrage-du-jour. But it isn’t applied the same way to something as meaningless (generally speaking), like Dempsey losing his shit for minute.
Jürgen Klinsmann is in a unique position where his status within the U.S. Soccer hierarchy means that he has no real motivation to alter his team in the name of public pressure, perception or in any way that he doesn’t see contributing directly to getting wins. The 2015 Gold Cup is as close to a must-win tournament as Klinsmann can face in terms of his American coaching legacy. To lift that trophy this month, he believes he needs Clint Dempsey in his squad, attitude and optics be damned.