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U.S. is counting on Clint Dempsey

WORLD CUP

Whether he plays as a striker or in the midfield, the team is looking at the veteran to carry a big part of the load against Slovenia.

June 16, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — It is probably fair to say that Slovenia knows as much about Clint Dempsey as Clint Dempsey knows about Slovenia.

A lot of Americans were sent scrambling for maps in December when the U.S. was drawn to play the Eastern European country in the World Cup. Many had never heard of it.

Similarly, there weren't many people in Ljubljana, Maribor or Kranj who had any knowledge about the man from Nacogdoches, Texas.

On Friday afternoon, at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, they could find out.

It used to be that Landon Donovan was the player that everyone counted on to carry the load for the U.S. Then it was Donovan and goalkeeper Tim Howard. Now it is Donovan, Howard and Dempsey.

Dempsey is enjoying his best year as a player, one that was capped on Saturday when he scored the goal that gave the U.S. a 1-1 tie with England and a vitalGroup C point.

It was merely a continuation of his fine form over the last 12 months. Dempsey, 27, was selected as the third-best player at the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009 and was a key player for Fulham as the London club finished 12th in the English Premier League and advanced to the final of the Europa League.

Along the way, Dempsey scored some crucial goals, most notably the series winner against Italian giant Juventus.

Now, he is one member of the trio that is being counted on to lead the U.S. past Slovenia and Algeria and into the knockout phase of the World Cup. Howard will stop the other team, Donovan will create the goals and Dempsey will score them.

That, at least, is the theory.

Dempsey's usefulness to Coach Bob Bradley is not just his intense competitiveness, but his versatility. He can play as a striker or anywhere across the midfield, but is most comfortable on the left side.

"I feel confident wherever they play me," Dempsey said. "I understand my role and how to be effective."

The U.S. team regards Slovenia as a must-win game. The coaching staff is only slightly less adamant. They see it as a game that must not be lost.

With one point in the bag from the England tie, another point against Slovenia and three more from a victory over Algeria would put the U.S. into the round of 16.

Not that Slovenia plans to lie down. If Slovenia wins, it clinches a place in the next round and leaves the U.S. in all sorts of trouble.

"After our first win against Algeria, we are very motivated for the next game," midfielder Dalibor Stevanovic said. "Everything is in our hands."

The fact that Slovenia is no bigger than New Jersey and has a population of barely 2 million is of no consequence.

"The important thing is the heart," Stevanovic said, "not how big you are as a country."

All of which puts a little pressure on the U.S., but Dempsey said that is nothing unusual.

"We're used to pressure," he said before the England game. "We feel that we have to come here and get the job done. We have to advance out of the group. Pressure brings the best out of people or it can bring the worst out. It's just how you use it."

If that sounds like a line that coaches use, it might well be.

Dempsey gets along well with Bradley, no doubt in part because Dempsey is doing exactly what Bradley would have liked to do had injury not cut short his playing career.

"The most important thing is the time you spend with the coach and what you all achieve," Dempsey said, his Texan accent coming through loud and clear.

"I know Bob's done well in MLS, but it's been a really good four years for us leading up to this World Cup — winning the Gold Cup, finishing first in qualifying for the World Cup, getting to the finals of the Confederations Cup, and now here.

"So that's what you judge him on, and I think he's been a success."

If the U.S. gets to the round of 16, there would be no argument about that.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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