I'll bet last year's Rookie of the Year, Clint Dempsey, can freestyle rap better than any East Texas white boy you've ever heard. Which isn't saying much, because if you're like me you've probably never heard any East Texas white-boy rappers freestyle. But then I could be wrong. Maybe you're a walking hip-hop encyclopedia.
Growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, Clint had a 1989 Ford Probe that didn't have a radio in it. That's every high school kid's worst nightmare, isn't it? No radio! Wow. I would've driven off the road several times. Imagine pulling into the Little Caesar's parking lot on a Friday night without tunes cranking. You might as well just ride your banana-seat Schwinn.
But Clint's not the type to care so much about appearances. (Obviously. Last week, Ben Olsen gave the national team rookie a misshapen haircut, including a rat-tail, and he walked around oblivious to it for a whole day.)
"Whenever I was driving, like to school or wherever, instead of just sitting there in silence, I would just rhyme about things I would see on the road," Dempsey said, speaking from the airport between flights with the national team. "Eventually, I developed, you know, I ended up getting better at freestyling and then started doing it to music and then started doing it in front of more people. I just try to make analogies and make metaphors up. I just do it for fun."
Although he'd like to pursue music more seriously later, right now it's kind of a pastime, something to keep him sane while living the pro athlete's hotel-room-and-airport existence. Every player needs something, especially when the offseason is more on than the on-season, as is the case with the national teamers.
The active ingredient in "offseason" is supposed to be "off." It's supposed to be a time to heal that tweaked ankle and that hamstring niggle, to rejuvenate, to replenish, to reconnect with your family, your friends, and, really, yourself.
But the top players rarely get much of an offseason, as Clint has learned.
"I got a little bit of down time," he said. "I had like two or three weeks off. I went home, back to Nacogdoches. I was waiting to see what was going to happen with the national team, like, with the players and the negotiations, that whole deal that went down. And ended up getting a little bit more time because of that." That's probably the only bright spot in that black hole strike nonsense that threatened to derail the U.S.'s World Cup qualifying process. The players got to rest more than usual, which is more important than playing umpteen warmup friendlies. It's obviously important to some national team coaches, too, such as Sven-Goran Eriksson, who is lobbying to move up the date of the 2006 FA Cup Final so that his England squad will have a full month to rest and prepare for the 2006 World Cup.
The lack of a full and proper offseason is the reason why the top players sometimes don't play up to their ability the next year, and why a rookie sensation's sophomore season is always harder than the first. It's like a band trying to make a decent second record after enjoying a critically acclaimed platinum debut. (Think: Franz Ferdinand's next record.) The phrases "sophomore slump" and "one-hit wonder" were coined for a reason.
This offseason's extra rest will pay off for the MLS internationals come September when their legs feel like jelly and they're flying all over CONCACAF-land with the U.S. national team.
However ... I'll rest when I'm dead, as the saying goes. Clint wouldn't trade this chaotic offseason for anything. Name your cliché: a fairytale offseason, living the dream, on cloud nine, over the moon. Anyway you put it, it's been great.
Back in November, he earned his first cap, playing the last 25 minutes in the USA's ugly 1-1 draw with Jamaica. Then, two days later, he trained for 10 days with Feyenoord, where he was blown away by the players' skill level, their intensity, and their haircuts. "Mullets!" he said, chuckling.
He felt comfortable at Feyenoord and certainly felt he could compete with them. But don't worry, all you Midnight Riders, he isn't about to follow DaMarcus Beasley and Cory Gibbs over to Holland quite yet. In fact, although he's mentioned in other interviews his desire to play abroad, Dempsey's not so sure anymore. He likes MLS, likes the Revs. Basically, he's going to keep all his options open.
If he did go abroad, he'd like to go to South America, perhaps Argentina. He loves the attacking style of the Argentinian league. And this season with the Revs, he wants to continue to develop his own attacking skills and help the team get past their own scrambling reputation.
"From a team standpoint this season, hopefully we can be consistently good and not have to wait for the end of the season to press to make the playoffs," he said. "From an individual standpoint, I want to improve on what I did last year. I want to score more goals. I want to get more assists."
That's what I love about Clint Dempsey. He just wants to attack, attack, attack. Damn the torpedoes. He seems to lope along, a little gawky, a little gangly, but then when he sees a gap in the defense, he surges forward with strange fluidity.
And what's most amazing to me is that this offseason hasn't seemed to faze him. Nothing does. He's even keeled in victory or defeat. That's the mark of something special. Eddie Gaven has it, too.
Are there things Clint can improve on? Of course. For example, he needs to learn when not to attack, when to preserve himself and take into consideration the shape of the team, the momentum of the game. But these are the nuances that'll come with time. (He just turned 22.) Heck, if his performance against Colombia in his first U.S. national team start is any indication, they already have come. He certainly showed the doubters who questioned him against T&T why Bruce Arena likes him.
And yet, even after his first international start, he seemed aloof. No big deal. A shrug. Maybe it's just the Texas way: Take it slow, keep it in control. Until you're ready to attack. In the immortal words of General Maximus, "At my signal, unleash hell."
Clint "Freestyle" Dempsey: One minute, he's just sitting in his 1989 Probe in silence. The next minute, he's busting out.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.