It’s only in hindsight that the most important moment of Clint Dempsey’s Copa America looms as large as a full moon. And even then, its significance is almost obscured. So tactical revolutions go sometimes.
If we’ve learned anything about Dempsey’s best usage at this point in his career in Seattle, it’s that he does best with a strike partner. Leave him alone up top and he tends to drift with the tactical winds of the match. You might find him in any number of places in search of service, and most of those places are not necessarily where you want him.
But pair him with a strike partner and he’s practically a golden ticket. He can still carry a team. You need only surround him with the right pieces.
After the rugged start to the Copa America against Colombia in a 2-0 loss, Dempsey looked almost disconnected with the rest of the attack. The 4-3-3 sputtered as Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes struggled to provide adequate width and Dempsey fell back to find Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones. It looked to all the world like Jurgen Klinsmann’s lineup choice would be a struggle for the duration of the tournament.
And then something happened. The formation shifted and Dempsey caught the hottest form of his national team career. Good timing with an undeniably massive Copa America semifinal arriving against Argentina on Tuesday night.
Since the Colombia match, Dempsey’s scored three goals and provided three assists in three consecutive wins. In those three matches, the U.S. has scored exactly one goal in which Dempsey could not count himself a part. He’s become the most dangerous threat for the Americans in this tournament, and after some hemming and hawing about his role before the tournament, Dempsey’s become indispensable.
And there’s a reason for that. Dempsey has help.
On paper, the U.S. has started each game of this tournament in a nominal 4-3-3. At full strength, Klinsmann prefers to have Wood-Dempsey-Zardes across the top in that order from left to right. Initially, against Colombia, the two wings attempted to provide the width with flagging results. Dempsey is still the most lethal finisher on this team, but he isn’t a target striker and can’t do it by himself.
The line essentially shifted against Costa Rica in the second group game. After starting the match in the 4-3-3, the U.S. got all three of its goals in the run of play essentially playing a misshapen 4-4-2. Wood scooted over to his right to pair with Dempsey, Jones backfilled the space with probing runs in the left-center and left back Fabian Johnson, who plays in the midfield for club team Borussia Monchengladbach, pushed forward to provide the width Wood was not.
Suddenly, for the next three matches, this is more or less what the effective USMNT XI looked like.
Not only did this make the midfield more cohesive, but it bound Wood and Dempsey together with iron cording. And that moment we were talking about that shifted everything for Dempsey? It was an assist to Wood in the Costa Rica match for the third goal. He drifted just outside the area and found Wood at the top of the box. Wood turned and struck and found the bottom left netting.
This was what Dempsey needed. A strike partner. A running mate capable of making use of his purposeful meandering around the box. His national team version of Obafemi Martins. And he’d found it in Wood.
The good news is that this made Dempsey as lethal as he’s ever been in a national team shirt. He’s looked motivated as ever, and his clanging header for the first goal at CenturyLink Field in the team’s eventual 2-1 win over Ecuador last week was a welcome and familiar sight for Sounders fans. With an in-form Dempsey in the lineup against Argentina, the U.S. has a shot. How much of one is up for interpretation.
But there is a catch, as there always seems to be. Wood is suspended for the Argentina match on card accumulation. Jones and Bedoya will miss the match too, but the Wood absence is most prescient for Dempsey’s purposes. He’ll have to find a new attacking running mate up top.
The U.S. has options here, and the best might be the least obvious. The 17-year-old Christian Pulisic has made his name with Borussia Dortmund as an inside forward slashing in from the left to provide one-twos with his forwards. Dempsey doesn’t have a rapport with the young prospect like he does with Wood, but Pulisic will provide more natural combinations than anyone on the roster. But because of his youth he’s a risk, and Klinsmann’s risks are almost always measured.
Graham Zusi is a more likely swap, but Klinsmann could do pretty much anything if his past practices are any indication. We could see a return to a straight 4-4-2 with Chris Wondolowski pairing with Dempsey up top. Or perhaps Zardes slides over and plays in a forward spot he prefers with the LA Galaxy.
The options are legion, but the one thing Klinsmann knows he can count on is a motivated, in-form Dempsey troubling Argentina’s back line. In fact, there’s nothing he can count on more come Tuesday night.