Myth and Dream: On Dempsey and Donovan

‘And though Californians personify the American Dream, it is Texas cowboys who personify the American Hero.’

Tony Kornheiser wrote this in 1980 for a piece called “Bringing it Back Home,” a profile for the first issue of “Inside Sports” magazine. He was talking about Nolan Ryan, but it occurs to me that there’s not really a better analysis for the relationship that fans of the U.S. National Team have with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.

They are more than our two best (outfield) players, they are the closest thing U.S. soccer has to archetypes. One the Californian, the other the Texan; one the protagonist – the American Dream is something you strive for and reach, not that is given to you – the other the beloved Hero, of everyone including the protagonist. They are Sal and Dean, Luke and Han[1], Richie and Arthur Fonzarelli.

Our heroes, with Tim Howard, far right.

The Dream in this case is not Landon’s own, but rather ours, the U.S. Soccer supporters, of a world where soccer is a big deal in this country and where this country is a big deal in soccer. It’s less a dream and more a myth.[2]

Landon’s origin story is the hero’s journey of American soccer, hitting all the elements we associate with our player development (or at least before the MLS academies). Raised by his single (soccer) mom, he grew up learning Spanish by playing with Hispanic kids, starring for one of Southern California’s innumerable club teams, then getting sucked into the U.S. youth system and residency program. His precocious talent culminated in the Golden Ball award at the U17 World Cup in 1999, signaling to the fanbase that he was the Golden Child, the Chosen One, the hero they had been waiting for. And thus was the burden placed on his shoulders. Others have come – Adu, Altidore, Agudelo – but for the time being the story of U.S. Soccer is still the story of Landon Donovan.

And of Clint Dempsey, though not in the same way.

Dempsey’s story – through no fault of his own – is significantly darker. Not only is it marred by tragedy, but it also highlights many of the great gaping flaws in the system, like how he and his parents had to drive three hours from Nacogdoches to Dallas to find a high-enough-level club for him. Or when he briefly had to stop playing for that team because his parents didn’t have the money to afford its dues and the cost of his sister’s burgeoning tennis career, the same sister who later died after suffering a brain aneurysm at the age of 16. As far as origins go, Dempsey’s the Batman of U.S. Soccer. The tragedy, according to some accounts, gave him the motivation to continue improving, to get better and better, to be the best American player. He went on to star for Furman and the Revolution before moving overseas.

And with that, Dempsey attained what Donovan could not; lasting success in a major overseas league. Fulham’s all-time leading Premier League goalscorer planted himself in the world Donovan was meant to be venturing into. So then, why hasn’t he become the protagonist?

Despite Dempsey’s brilliance, and despite efforts to shift some of the responsibility of our soccer monomyth onto his shoulders, he’s remained mostly unconstrained by those burdens, able to avoid our expectations. Instead it’s Donovan who received the Call to Adventure at the U17 World Cup in ’99, Donovan who had his Road of Trials at Leverkeusen and Bayern, and who reached his Ultimate Boon by scoring against Algeria, creating if not the most important moment, then certainly the most memorable one in the team’s history. Even with a club career that, while successful in its own right and fraught with its own complications[3], is less impressive than Dempsey’s, he is still the centerpiece, the talisman, a fact that remains true even as he approaches thirty.

Dempsey, among the fans, is arguably the more popular of the two[4], just as Dean, Han, and the Fonz are more popular than those they are guiding through the country, galaxy or Jefferson High School. Those qualities fans admire are ones that seemingly only he has among the U.S. player pool – the timely playmaking, the outside-the-box thinking, the testicular fortitude. He is, as we saw on Saturday, the player who performs even when no one else does; who scores when it’s apparent no one else can. He is the rogue, the scoundrel, the cowboy. His name is Clint, for God’s sake!

When Dempsey was off-form, he would simply disappear for large segments of the match, popping up to commit a turnover or dribble the ball into three opponents and be forced to pass backwards.[5] His commitment to tracking back on defense would lag.  Often, he made up for these days by scoring suddenly in games that otherwise went terribly for him, disguising his own poor performance with those heroics.  He’s riding in at the last moment to blast TIE fighters off his teammates’ back, making the fans conveniently forget that he had abandoned them in the first place. When all else has failed, there’s still Dempsey. He rises above the team, and for that we love him.

Donovan’s fortunes are more tied to those of the team around him. When he’s off-form, as he seemed to be for much of the Gold Cup,[6] it looks as though he’s out of rhythm with everyone else, unable to do anything useful, though not for lack of trying. He plays, but does nothing spectacular, contributes nothing positive.When he’s on, the whole team plays better; there’s a reason he also tops the national teams’ all-time assists chart.

Because the team’s play so often mirrors his own, the blame can become unfairly placed upon him. His origins give him higher expectations, and when he fails to meet them, it’s obvious that the team suffers. Putting aside the way we typically use these words in sports – this has nothing to do with the locker room or the off-field dynamics –Donovan plays like a leader, and Dempsey plays like a lone wolf. Dempsey is a hero as Tony Kornheiser phrases it, but Donovan is a Hero in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word.

Donovan’s hero’s journey will probably never be completely successful; that’s why his career is so often (somewhat ridiculously) spoken of as a kind of disappointment. Even so, he’s the best candidate we have to fill that role, to be that talisman.

Until the next one comes along.

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1. That makes Tim Howard Chewbacca, I think. Rest assured, we’ll be sure to give him a medal at the end of the movie.

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2. That’s Edith Hamilton myth, not Discovery Channel myth.

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3. Like the MLS’ reluctance to sell him.

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4. Certainly here in Texas, where his goal Saturday was met by at least one drunken cry of “Nacogdoches!”

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5. This was more true up until about 2010. In the last year, when Dempsey is off-form, he gets more involved but tries to force things.

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6. I said multiple times he looked like he was playing with a case of mono.

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6 Responses to Myth and Dream: On Dempsey and Donovan

  1. hansh says:

    Good article, but all I can think it, wow, Donovan really looks like Andres Iniesta in that last picture!

  2. Mark m says:

    Best article written about US Soccer that I have read in a long time.

    As a native Texan myself, I can tell you that I too let out a “TEXAS BABY” scream as he scored that goal.

  3. Pingback: Orange Slices: USA vs. Ecuador « The Shin Guardian

  4. Great article. Big thumbs up to the Star Wars analogy, which makes perfect sense, and goes some way to explaining why Landon Donovan isn’t as popular with US fans as he should be. One big positive: at least we have them both, and they can share the burden a bit. Imagine if all that pressure was on Donovan alone? Or if the US was relying exclusively on a sometimes unproductive Dempsey to produce? In an odd way this article makes me feel positive about the current situation.

  5. trevsey says:

    I think what’s more telling is what this says about American soccer supporters. Donovan is by far the most dominant American to ever wear our jersey, holds every (outfield) record there is to hold, and still he’s a disappointment. “Deuce” is great, but Donovan is the core of that team.

  6. Matthew says:

    Well written
    Matthew, The Shin Guardian

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