ARLINGTON, TEX. — The CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal Saturday between the United States and Costa Rica had rambled into the second half without a goal. There was a sense, though, that a personnel change could sway the direction of the taut match and decide the winner before a penalty kick tiebreaker cruelly did the honors.
Costa Rica seemed tired from chasing the ball, vulnerable to fresh legs and fresh ideas. In the locker room at halftime, U.S. Coach Bruce Arena had told Clint Dempsey — an east Texas native on the cusp of equaling the program’s scoring record — that he would enter sometime in the middle of the half.
Dempsey had gone the distance in Philadelphia’s heavy air three days earlier and, on the back nine of a wonderful career, he was more suited for a reserve role at AT&T Stadium. And so it was, with the game begging for someone to make a difference, Arena relayed instruction to his son Kenny, an assistant coach, to summon Dempsey from the warm-up corner.
Over the next 16 minutes, the 34-year-old forward altered the trajectory of the match and propelled the Americans into Wednesday’s tournament final in Santa Clara, Calif. He assisted on Jozy Altidore’s goal, then scored one of his own 10 minutes later to punctuate a 2-0 victory and equal Landon Donovan’s career mark of 57.
For it to transpire in greater Dallas was poetic. Though Dempsey grew up three hours away in Nacogdoches, he played organized soccer in the metroplex, ferried back and forth by his working-class parents three days a week. Ahead of Saturday’s match, he had supplied 27 tickets to friends and family. Judging by posters and banners he spotted in the crowd of 45,516, many more from his hometown had make the trek.
“It was bigger than me, man,” Dempsey said. “It was something that was already written, it seems like. Couldn’t have pictured a better scenario.”
It played out like this:
In the 72nd minute, six minutes after replacing Paul Arriola, Dempsey collected the ball in the center circle and dragged it from an approaching foe. He accelerated, dodging a challenge along the way. With Costa Rica honing in on him, he slipped a well-weighted ball through a channel. Altidore had timed his run perfectly to avoid being offside and tracked the pass on the left side of the box before one-timing a low shot past charging goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton.
“Just coming into the game, I didn’t want to play negative,” Dempsey said. “I wanted to go forward.”
Said Altidore: “He’s going to cause defenders to give him attention. Two or three guys, as soon as he turns, go to him. All of a sudden, the space opens up for somebody else. He’s a guy that can still make a difference.”
In the 82nd minute, with the U.S. team awarded a free kick 25 yards away and to one side of the target, Dempsey surveyed his options. He decided against lifting the shot over the wall and targeting the far end. Instead, he chose the short side, whipping a low shot that flashed past the human barrier and beat Pemberton to the near corner.
“I saw the keeper was cheating a little bit the other way” toward the far side, he said. “The wall maybe could’ve gone a little bit more to their left, but I hit it good. I hit it around the wall and it was tight. The guy on the end almost got a foot to it. It got a good skip off the surface. I think that helped out.”
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Reflecting on the timing of Dempsey’s entrance, Arena said: “We just needed a little bit more technical ability in the last third of the field, passing and finishing. And certainly that is what he offers.”
Arena and Dempsey have spoken regularly about the latter’s role on the team with a World Cup — Dempsey’s fourth, if the Americans qualify — on the horizon. They haven’t always seen eye to eye. In a World Cup qualifier in March, Dempsey’s ineffective performance against Trinidad and Tobago prompted Arena to pull him early in the second half. When he approached the bench area, Dempsey declined to shake Arena’s hand and exchanged words with the coach.
Both men played down the incident.
In assessing Dempsey’s place in the squad, Arena said Saturday: “He understands where he is in his career. I had a conversation with him yesterday. He understands. There’s going to be games where he starts, games where he’ll play the role he played tonight [24 minutes]. Things can change in other directions, but that’s the plan right now.”
In the build-up to the Costa Rica match, “Bruce said he thought it was going to be a tight game where he could bring me on late and it would open up,” Dempsey said. “He was right.”
A reluctant hero, Dempsey tried his darnedest to avoid the spotlight in a festive postgame locker room.
“We wanted him to give a longer speech,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, laughing.
“He has done it on so many big days,” captain Michael Bradley said, “and so for him to do it tonight in Texas is special for him.”
Dempsey said he was honored to have caught Donovan, his former teammate who, as a Fox Sports analyst on Gold Cup duty, witnessed the record-tying goal from the stadium’s broadcast booth.
“It’s great to be able to say I’m tied” for the record “when I’m a kid from Nacogdoches. You know what I’m saying?”