When this wearing stretch of soccer ends in two weeks, a long English season followed by U.S. national team duty, Clint Dempsey is going fishing.
He’ll head to the lake house in central North Carolina and join his wife, two kids, parents and siblings for lazy afternoons casting for bluegills and bass.
It’s a way of replicating childhood adventures camping at Powell Park on Lake Sam Rayburn in east Texas. And it’s a way to thank his father and mother, whose sacrifice during lean times in Nacogdoches helped launch one of the most successful careers in U.S. soccer history.
“I’m not typical of what you think a footballer would do after the season, especially in Europe where they go to the exotic locations,” Dempsey said. “You travel so much, that’s the last thing I want to do. It’s just about relaxing with the family — relax, man, and chill.”
What else would you expect from a guy who, in his Twitter photo, is shirtless and posing with a big fish stretched across his face?
Dempsey’s summer solitude won’t last long, though. A storm is brewing on distant shores, where, over the course of 51 / 2 seasons with London-based Fulham, he has achieved superstar status. Elite clubs in the Premier League have reportedly targeted him for acquisition.
The end of the regular season this month ushered in the “silly season,” when rumors of player movement trump royal family gossip in the British tabloids.
Arsenal? Liverpool? Another country?
“I’d be flattered if it were all true,” said Dempsey, who is trying to shake off a groin strain before the U.S. friendly against Brazil on Wednesday night at FedEx Field. “You can’t believe all the speculation.”
What you can believe is this: Dempsey wants, someday soon, to play for a club competing in the Champions League, Europe’s ultimate club competition featuring the titans of the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A, among others.
He is entering the final season of a Fulham contract that pays him $3 million annually. Fulham gained promotion to the Premier League 11 years ago and is reliably competitive, but the chances of the Cottagers ever qualifying for the Champions League with a top-four finish are distant.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play Champions League and push myself to the highest level possible,” the midfielder-forward said. “I’m not saying Fulham won’t ever get there, but I’m 29 years old now and I only have a certain number of years left to play at the highest level. Hopefully, that is in the cards.”
Fulham’s best card might be to sell him for a handsome transfer fee this summer before he is free to leave next year.
For Dempsey to further his career and, in turn, bolster the American program, U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann would like to see him move.
“With all respect to Fulham, as he often mentions, you want to play in the biggest club competition in the world, and that’s the European Champions League,” Klinsmann said. “Hopefully something will happen over the next couple weeks.”
Dempsey is hardly the first American to prosper overseas. There has been a 20-year flow of goalkeepers, an influx of defenders and midfielders and a few certified scorers, such as former Fulham star Brian McBride. But no one ever enjoyed a season like Dempsey’s in 2011-12.
His 17 goals in league play this year, raising his career total to 50, tied him for fourth behind three of the biggest names in world soccer: Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero. No one else on Fulham scored more than six, and his seven assists were tied for the team lead.
Dempsey also had three goals in the Europa League, one step below the Champions League, and three in the FA Cup, England’s ancient tournament. The 23-goal total included two hat tricks and several breathtaking strikes from great distance.
U.S. and Texas flags spot Craven Cottage, Fulham’s 30,000-seat riverside home since 1896.
“He’s been climbing the mountain to get to this point,” said Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper at English rival Everton. “A lot of players find it hard, hit the wall, and then turn the other way. You only really find success when you battle through it and keep going. You push through and get the rewards, and Clint is a perfect example of that.”
Dempsey’s path to prominence wasn’t glamorous. He learned the game in his grandmother’s yard. Having outgrown the local leagues, he joined a club in Dallas, which required six-hour roundtrips several days per week. To finance the effort, his father Aubrey, a railroad worker, sold the family boat and some of his guns.
When Clint was 12, his sister Jennifer died of a brain aneurysm. She was 16. An elaborate tattoo on his upper left arm includes a tennis racket (she played competitively) and a cow (she showed steers). There’s also the outline of Texas, with a star signifying Nacogdoches’ place in the state.
Unlike some of his U.S. teammates, Dempsey didn’t transition from the youth national team system to Europe. Instead, he spent three years at Furman University and three with MLS’s New England Revolution before being sold to Fulham for $4 million.
Since the 2007-08 season, he has been a fixture on the English soccer landscape.
“When you get to England, you have a year like I had last season [12 league goals] and this season, you feel you can go even further,” he said. “I want to push the limits. You don’t know what you can do until you take those steps. You hope for it, the dream of it.”
With major clubs circling, the dream might be realized this summer.