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Reluctant Team USA star Clint Dempsey sets own terms, leads with gritty example

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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RECIFE, BrazilClint Dempsey could be all over the media these days, the face of American soccer. It is a face, albeit, with a black eye and broken nose, but in this case that's a positive.

The U.S. men's national team has never been more popular and Dempsey is its captain, its best player in the field and its undeniable heart and soul.

He's scored a goal in both World Cup games. He played through a brutal kick to the face that left his nose bent and, eventually, his right eye darkened. He's made fans forget about Landon Donovan, the only player to score more goals for the U.S. than Dempsey's 39.

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He is already the biggest star in Major League Soccer, and chief attraction for the Seattle Sounders, the most followed team in the league. The World Cup, however, exposes him to exponentially more people.

His is a great story, a kid from a trailer park in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches who chose soccer over football. He wound up an elite player in the English Premier League before returning to the States last year. He is a combination of tremendous ability and a healthy dose of Lone Star tough. He's an easy sell.

Clint Dempsey has chosen not to be all over the media these days though.

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Clint Dempsey (L) celebrates scoring the U.S. team's second goal against Portugal. (AP)

Clint Dempsey (L) celebrates scoring the U.S. team's second goal against Portugal. (AP)

He's done the bare minimum with the press, rarely more than what is required. He's stayed away from everything else, whether it is a casual media roundtable before practice or, if he can, more formal pre- and post-match FIFA-run pressers. He breezes through the postgame on the way to the bus, answering but a couple questions. He's sat for just one ESPN session.

While the duties of the star and captain usually include being the de facto team spokesman, Dempsey, 31, is at ease seeing lesser players, even subs and dual nationals, trotted out instead. You get the sense that if he could say nothing publicly, he'd say nothing publicly.

He is America's reluctant star, and here in an era when so much about sports has become contrived marketing and brand building and earnings capitalization, it's a refreshing change.

Clint Dempsey will essentially let his play do the talking. Self-promotion isn't a concern. Of course, he already has money, including a $24 million contract from the Sounders, but when did that stop other star athletes? He's most comfortable concentrating on the game right now.

You got a problem with that?

None of this suggests a lack of leadership within the team or on the field. To the contrary, Dempsey carries a huge presence among his teammates.

"Clint is unique," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "Players on our team understand what drives him.

"I'm not going to say he is a silent leader," Gulati continued. "That's not true. Silent and strong is not the case. But it's behind the scenes. He is not as vocal as others [publicly], but he is a leader in different ways."

Dempsey's way is clearly by example. He is focused, fierce, willing to go all in to win. He scored 30 seconds into this World Cup, jumping Ghana before they knew what hit them. It was the goal that immediately signaled the U.S. team's intentions here.

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USA's Clint Dempsey celebrates with teammates during his team's draw against Portugal. (AFP)

USA's Clint Dempsey celebrates with teammates during his team's draw against Portugal. (AFP)

Later, when he took a brutal boot to the face, he continued to play a bruising, physical style. This despite hardly being able to breathe through his nose, spitting blood and having every bit of contact cause pain. He later refused to play with a mask that might offer protection.

"That's something you see your captain doing it, and it can really resonate throughout the group," Graham Zusi said after. "It makes you want to dig down even deeper."

He scored the emotional, grinding go-ahead goal against Portugal before succumbing to an ankle injury late. With the loss of fellow forward Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury, he's often been left alone up front, charged with creating chances and pressuring the attack.

Dempsey plays the game with great charisma and in a manner appreciated by American fans, particularly those who focus on the sport just once every four years. He's also creative and can find unusual ways to score, which led former U.S. coach Bruce Arena to famously say that Dempsey's best quality is that "he tries [expletive]."

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He has said he is forever motivated by the fear of seeing his game fall off, that he's never forgotten the sacrifices he and his family made growing up without great resources and sitting a three-hour drive from top youth teams in the Dallas area. Besides, at his age, this may be his last World Cup opportunity.

So this is a business trip, only the business is not about acquiring more fame or marketing himself so advertisers will flock to him or even promoting his upcoming rap album (of all things).

The business is about winning World Cup games for the United States of America. That happens on the field, not in front of a camera.

And no one has any questions about what Clint Dempsey is doing on the field.

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