Barring some unforeseen calamity over the next eight days, Fulham attacker Clint Dempsey will boldly go where no American has gone before. He will feature in a cup final of a UEFA tournament—the first-ever Europa League title match, to be exact.
There have been several Americans to win a domestic championship in Europe, and even more have raised a domestic cup. But no American-born player has ever vied for one of Europe's spotlight club cups on the field.
German-born U.S. star Thomas Dooley dressed for one leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup final, in which his Schalke defeated Inter Milan. He has a winners medal for involvement leading up to the last round. And the only American-born player to win a medal is Jovan Kirovski, who was with Borussia Dortmund when they won the Champions League title in 1997. The current Los Angeles Galaxy player scored his first professional goal during the German club’s Champions League run, but he was not in uniform for the final against Juventus in Munich.
Dempsey, however, will be key to the fray for the Cottagers, either as a starter or as a goal-seeking sub torpedo. The man they call Deuce is known for grabbing opportunities, for succeeding when the cards seem against him and his side.
Before he stares down Atlético Madrid in Hamburg on May 12, though, Dempsey can draw some inspiration from international teammates who have come close to a big cup final before he did.
In 2005, DaMarcus Beasley scored a team-high four goals for PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League proper and famously ran Jaap Stam a bit ragged while appearing in one of the semifinal legs against AC Milan. Two years earlier, John O'Brien was on the pitch for Ajax Amsterdam and 20 seconds from the semis before Milan’s Jon Dahl Tomasson bundled home a tie-flipper in stoppage time.
Now, Dempsey will take that last step in this particular ascension of American soccer exploits and physically battle for UEFA silver. In reality, though, the Texas native from humble beginnings has been battling to make this final since he was a boy.
When he was 12, Dempsey's sister Jennifer suddenly passed away. The loss still fuels his competitive fire. A recent ESPN feature on the U.S. star revealed that Dempsey placed a note on his sister's grave, telling her that she'd always be with him.
Along with the obvious soccer talents, it’s the memory of his sister that makes him the perfect man to get first crack at European glory -- he's already carrying his Fulham flag for two.
Considering his schoolyard array of flicks, kicks and tricks, Dempsey may as well still be out there showing off to his sister when he plays. He has peddled that inner drive and flair into a career that's taken him from the New England Revolution to playing in the biggest city in Europe in the biggest league in the world.
Often shifted around the field by his team’s formational needs, Dempsey has a knack for making the big play. At 27, he has already scored an impressive list of goals: to put New England in MLS Cup 2005, to give the U.S. hope of advancement at the 2006 World Cup, to save Fulham from relegation in 2007, to help the 'Nats earn runner-up status at last summer's Confederations Cup.
The most recent headline-grabber came in mid-March, when he hopped off the bench to complete a stirring Craven Cottage comeback that put Fulham past vaunted round-of-16 opponents Juventus. A moment of invention saw him nestle a pillowy chip into the far side netting, and the West Londoners moved on.
Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, the subject of various poetic urges that he be the next England boss, has built a side based on gritty skill. Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer and hot transfer topic Brede Hangeland—born in Houston, Texas!—supervise the back with authority. Old EPL hands Simon Davies, Damien Duff, Zoltán Gera and Danny Murphy (average age: 31) do the dirty work to set the table. Most commonly, the gobbling up is done by Dempsey or Bobby Zamora, who's enjoying the form of his life.
Atlético also could be just the right final combatant. Sure, they’re loaded with explosive talent—most notably super snipers Sergio Agüero and Diego Forlán—but they’re quite beatable. In fact, Los Colchoneros will arrive in Hamburg winless in 10 away from home if they can't beat La Liga strugglers Sporting Gijón away three days before the final.
Then again, why should maestro Hodgson (who coached against the U.S. at World Cup 1994 with Switzerland) and his brave boys fear any team right now? They've already come from the third round of qualifying to dispose of Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg—clubs that have combined to win nine UEFA crowns.
The closest Fulham have come to top-shelf silver was a 2-0 loss to West Ham United in the 1975 FA Cup final. Before this year’s adventure, their lone European entry ended in the third round of the 2003 UEFA Cup (re-tooled as Europa League last summer).
But everything seems to be lined up so Fulham finally can be called champions, perhaps even thanks to an opportunistic play made by Dempsey. There's just one thing that's sure: Win or lose, this first Europa League final will truly be a night to remember for Dempsey, his club, his family, the Fulham faithful and Stateside fans.
And for whichever player becomes the first American to reach the next height.
Greg Seltzer’s “Postcard from Europe” appears on MLSsoccer.com every Tuesday.