Dempsey continues to improve
Clint Dempsey has notched a career high mark in goals scored this season
Dempsey has shown the ability to play a wide variety of attacking roles
Dempsey would consider playing for the U.S. in the Olympics if asked
GENOA, Italy -- The U.S. meets four-time World Cup champion Italy in a friendly here on Wednesday (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Galavisión), and I sat down with U.S. star Clint Dempsey at the team hotel on Monday. Dempsey is having the best season of his career with England's Fulham, and we had a wide-ranging discussion about a number of topics. Here it is (edited for clarity):
SI.com: You have 16 goals in all competitions this year for Fulham. You're in a zone few U.S. players have ever been in. How would you describe what that feels like as a player?
Dempsey: It's good, because one of my favorite parts of the game is scoring goals and helping your team win games. To come up big when your team needs you is a great feeling. This year it's something I've gotten to experience quite a few times. Hopefully there are more goals in me and I can get to the 20 mark in all competitions. I have 12 games left. Hopefully that will happen. You want to be making the most of your career, and having seasons like this makes you feel good when you look back on what you've done.
SI.com: The only Premier League players with more goals in all competitions than you this season are Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Agüero. That's it. Do you think there will come a point when people view you in that truly elite group?
Dempsey: It seems like you have a few more hurdles when you're an American. I feel I have to do it consistently, even though I feel like every year I've bettered myself. If I continue to go the way I'm going, then maybe one day. But I still need to finish the season strong, still need to get my goal tally up. I feel like if we were higher up in the table it's something you'd take more notice of also. Hopefully we can finish in the top half and I can continue in the years coming up playing the way I have been the last few seasons.
SI.com: One very minor quibble. Your goal celebrations aren't as creative as they were in your MLS days. What happened?
Dempsey: (laughs) I guess you could say it was more a happy, joking-around kind of time. I couldn't believe I was playing professionally and was having fun with it. I used to be doing jokes and putting on hats and doing fishing celebrations, that kind of stuff. But when it got to scoring in a World Cup and being able to score in the Premier League, it was more accomplishing goals, really doing something special. Not to take away from the goals I scored in MLS, but now it's a business. I went through some tough times going through all those coaches [at Fulham] and having to prove myself. It was like: I'm here, I am good enough, I should be playing. That's all it was in my celebrations. A lot of times people think I look like I'm angry. But I'm just getting all that pressure out. It's a release.
SI.com: I like asking players about their craft. What are the little things you're doing on the field to put yourself in a position to score -- little things fans may not always realize you're doing but are important?
Dempsey: When I see someone with time and space on the ball, whether it's a forward or a midfielder, I'm always trying to run behind the back line and get a ball in a position to score. When the ball's out wide, I'm always trying to get into the box, get into position to score. I'm trying to put myself in good situations in the attacking third to give myself a chance of the possibility of something happening. A ball may be coming my way. That's something I've really focused on these past few seasons. Just being more collected in front of the goal, more calm and making the most of the chances I get. Not rushing things. That experience is starting to pay off.
SI.com: The U.S. hasn't scored a lot of goals under Jurgen Klinsmann. Where would you like to play on the field? Would you like to play as an out-and-out forward?
Dempsey: It just depends. My whole career I've been asked: What's your main position? I just like being anywhere I can get into the attack, whether it's out wide, as a withdrawn forward, a target forward or more as a midfielder who has freedom to run forward in the center. Ideally, I'd like to face my opponents. I don't like having my back to goal, so I don't like to be a target guy that holds the ball up. I'd rather be a guy who's running at defenders or running behind defenders and getting balls played through. But I'll play any position to be on the field, because if you're not playing, to me, you're just wasting time. You don't have much time in your career. When you're not playing and you're able to play, that's time you never get back.
We'll see. I've been able to come up with some goals for the national team. I'd like to add more, so any position that allows me to get in the attacking third on a consistent basis, that's where I want to play.
SI.com: You're still in your 20s. You turn 29 on March 9, and yet you're saying you're always aware that the clock is ticking on your career?
Dempsey: That's how I've always been. I think losing my sister at a young age and seeing friends and loved ones pass away, you realize life is short. You see people fall off and they're still at a good age, and you don't understand it, so you want to keep your foot on the pedal, keep going until you can't. Make the period you were playing the best possible. If you let up you can find yourself falling off. I try to keep the mindset that you're not promised tomorrow and see how far I can push it. As long as I feel like I'm competitive and can help my team win games, I want to play. If I'm ever a passenger I'll hang up the boots. Hopefully I'll know when to do that!
SI.com: People were looking forward to this U.S.-Italy game as the first time in Klinsmann's 10 games as coach that you and Landon Donovan were on the field together. Now that's not happening. Is that frustrating?
Dempsey: It is what it is. You can't control it. He's sick this time, was injured a few other times. If you look back, there was a Mexico friendly and Costa Rica game I didn't get to. Just circumstances. All you can do is make the most of what we have. We've got guys in who want to make a difference and getting a chance to shine while other players aren't here. Hopefully they take advantage of their chance and try to work their way into this team. Ideally, you'd like to have all your best players, and Landon is certainly one of our best players. It's unfortunate he can't be here, but maybe the next game he will.
SI.com: The last two times you played with Donovan for the U.S., in the Gold Cup, you connected for goals. Is that connection something you can get back quickly, or do you need that time together?
Dempsey: You don't need that time together. When someone has a ball in a dangerous area and you make the right run they'll find you, because they want to win as much as you do. Over time as a player you get that understanding: If I make the good run he has the quality that he can find me, and vice versa.
SI.com: Klinsmann is trying to take the U.S. to the next level, to get the team playing more attack-minded soccer. How do you view that process?
Dempsey: It can be a long process, because it basically comes from the back to the front. Having the confidence to play out of the back frustrates the opposing team. Eventually they're going to have to press to win back the ball, but then having the quality to play through them and take advantage of the space that you get from them taking risks to win the ball back after being frustrated not having the ball. If we can ever get to that style of play where we're that confident with the ball and teams start to get frustrated, we can start taking advantage of their mistakes. That's ultimately where you want to get to. That's Barcelona, the highest level. It's a long process. If everybody could do it, they would. But the more confidence you have on the ball, it's only going to help you play better attacking football.
SI.com: It seems like "confident on the ball" describes you pretty well.
Dempsey: (laughs) Yeah. Ideally, I'd rather be attacking than defending. Hopefully we can continue improving in that aspect.
SI.com: You're about to turn 29, Donovan is about to turn 30. Is there any concern the U.S. doesn't have a real idea yet who are the next Dempsey and Donovan?
Dempsey: I think people will step up. They'll have to. Hopefully there's years left in me and Landon. You look around the world, some players are able to keep it going a long time. Look at Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, players like that. Hopefully we can go as long as we can and make an impact. But yeah, there will be people who will have to step up. By playing more games, getting more experience, it's only going to help you. As you start to grow as a player, you start to find yourself. If I could go back and know what I know now, I could have been better. But that's part of growing and learning. That's what it'll take for these younger guys, having experiences to get to where they're making an impact week in and week out.
SI.com: What are those things that you look back on and wish you'd known when you were younger?
Dempsey: Just my mindset, not worrying about as many things as I did. I'd be more relaxed. But at the same time, I feel like I've always been in good positions to take advantage of what I've gotten. But just to do it that little percentage more. The last few years I've been able to step it up that little bit more. Hopefully I'll continue to do that. Little things give you that percentage, on and off the field. If you can get that one millisecond of thinking quicker, that experience of knowing in a situation what ball to play, when to take a shot. That's the difference.
SI.com: Do you have any interest in playing for the Olympic team this summer if they qualify?
Dempsey: If they qualify it would have to be something to look at. I've never played in an Olympics. If the opportunity comes up I'd have to sit down and think about it and see first, if they qualify, second, if they'd want me to be part of it, and three, if it was able to work out with my club team. You have to wait and see, but the Olympics is something special.
SI.com: You've said for years now that you'd like to play in Champions League. How possible is a move this summer to make that happen?
Dempsey: You never know what could happen. After this season I have one more [contract year] with Fulham. All you can do is make the most of where you're at. That's what I've been doing. The grass isn't always greener. What if it's not Fulham that makes Champions League and you go to a different team and you're knocked out after one or two games? Is it really worth the move? It would have to be the right situation. Right now I'm happy at Fulham and trying to finish the season strong. We'll see what the future holds.
SI.com: You're on Twitter now. For years you said you'd never do it, and now we can't get you off. What happened?
Dempsey: (laughs) I was off for like a week. I've only been on for six weeks, but I seem to get on it more when I'm on away trips at the hotel and bored and not around my family. I like talking trash with guys and making jokes, making fun of people and having people make fun of me. It's fun. It's something not to be taken too seriously, Twitter. You need to use it in the right way, knowing how far you can take things and how far you can't, because you could find yourself getting in trouble too.