By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 20, 2020) US Soccer Players – Wednesday marked an auspicious occasion in the history of American soccer. March 18 wasn’t the date of a monumental US men’s national team victory or the day that MLS started its first season. There’s nothing about significant decisions for the sport taking place on that date.
March 18 is an auspicious day in American soccer history because it’s the day Clint Dempsey scored “that goal” against Juventus in the Round of 16 of the 2010 Europa League. The percentage of goals that get the designation of “that goal”—meaning you need little more than the name of the goalscorer or the year to identify them—is infinitesimal. Dempsey’s goal is deserving.
First, to set the stage. Little Fulham, the “other” London club overshadowed by the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, and West Ham scored a berth in the second-tier European competition for the 2009-10 season by finishing seventh in the Premier League the previous season. Considering that the club now sits third in the Championship following relegation from the top division last year, Fulham’s top 10 finish and Europa League run the following year represents the high watermark of the club’s modern history.
The Italian giants, in the middle of a push back to the top of Serie A following the Calciopoli scandal, took charge of the matchup with a 3-1 over the Cottagers in Turin. Fulham’s one away goal gave the English club hope, but few observers imagined there was a way back for them on the return to Craven Cottage. Scandal-hit Juventus or not, the balance of the matchup still seemed to favor the storied club.
By the time Dempsey entered the second-leg, Fulham had pushed Juventus into a flat-footed tie. David Trezeguet opened the scoring in the second minute to give Juve a 4-1 lead on aggregate. A Bobby Zamora goal and two goals from Zoltan Gera brought the series to 4-4 with both sides counting one away goal among their total.
The American striker substituted for Stephen Kelly in the 71st minute with the aggregate level and Fulham up a man following Fabio Cannovaro’s early red card. Dempsey was a regular starter for Fulham this season but was held back for the second-leg by manager Roy Hodgson.
Just a little more than 10 minutes after his introduction, Dempsey sent the crowd into euphoria and fired Fulham into the lead. After receiving the ball near the top of the Juventus penalty area, Dempsey dribbled away from goal and toward the far sidelines. Without so much as a glance at Juventus goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti, Dempsey spun on the ball and chipped a lofted shot to the back post.
Chimenti froze. The ball floated over his head and into the upper corner. Dempsey immediately tore off around the back of the net, pulling at the Fulham badge on his shirt and bellowing to the rapturous crowd. Fulham went on to win two more rounds in the tournament before falling to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final, but there wasn’t a single moment better than that goal by that player.
It’s easy to forget a decade later and with the man himself retired just how successful Dempsey was at Craven Cottage. The goal against Juventus capped a strong campaign that led into the following season when Dempsey scored double-digit goals in the Premier League. In 2011-12, he collected 17 in 37 appearances.
Dempsey wasn’t just an American getting by in one of the best leagues in the world. He was a critical, respected part of a club capable of making waves in a European competition. The Texan broke down barriers for American players with his quality of play and penchant for tricky, skillful goals. What Dempsey did against Juventus didn’t surprise those that knew him back in the United States, but it did show some in England and on the Continent that style and “Yank” were not mutually exclusive.
Highest level American players are more likely to leave a Development Academy club for a German club than trade the college ranks for the pros before moving onto Europe. That road is still open, but the increasing mining of the United States for talent by European clubs and the less stringent requirements to join German teams means it’s possible to land in one of the best leagues in the world before your 20th birthday.
The heyday of the American player in the Premier League is over, at least for now. Christian Pulisic’s move to Chelsea doubled the number of USMNT-eligible players lining up for topflight English teams in 2019-20. Pulisic was already a key contributor at Borussia Dortmund, a club he joined straight out of the American DA system at the age of 16.
Americans are near-regulars in European competitions, however. Pulisic played and scored for Dortmund in the Champions League. Over the last two seasons, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Giovanni Reyna have appeared in the world’s top club competition with Bundesliga clubs. Sergino Dest arrived in the first team at Ajax in time to play for the famed Dutch club in the tournament. In the Europa League, both Timmy Chandler at Eintracht Frankfurt and John Brooks at Wolfsburg reached the Round of 16.
If and when play resumes in that competition, it’s unlikely either will match Dempsey’s chip with a goal of their own. Neither is that type of player. Dempsey was purely attacking, clever, resourceful, and particularly skilled with the ball at his feet. They can help their teams in other ways and will, but we can’t expect a moment of magic Dempsey created along the banks of the Thames a decade ago.
Dempsey was one-of-a-kind. He fought through the system available to American players and bucked the odds to reach the Premier League. He defied the idea that Americans were little more than fit, run-all-day types whose impact on the game was more subtle and hard to identify.
The goal against Juventus wasn’t Dempsey’s only magical moment in a career that took him from MLS to the Premier League and back again. It was the goal that he’s most identified with, both for Fulham and USMNT fans who closely followed Dempsey’s career abroad.
Dempsey was the metaphorical American flag bearer, the player who soccer fans on the western side of the Atlantic could point to when anyone suggested we could play the game with flair.
Ten years after the goal, Dempsey is retired and American soccer has entered a new phase. That doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the moment or the importance of Dempsey’s exploits in London. There might not even be a new wave of Americans in Germany and elsewhere without “that goal.”
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- It’s always MLS vs Liga MX in the Champions League
- David Beckham and Chicharito Hernandez in MLS
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