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Explosions, car chases and sporadic gunfire filled the streets of Cleveland last week. Luckily for the U.S. men's soccer team, which was staying in town ahead of its May 29 friendly against Belgium, none of that mayhem was real. A Hollywood film crew had descended upon the city and was shooting a sequel to Captain America, starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson—which provided an appropriately theatrical backdrop when U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann named his own Captain America, Clint Dempsey, as the new full-time skipper moving toward World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
The captaincy means more in soccer than in any sport, owing to tradition, ceremony and the importance of on-field leadership in a game with no timeouts. In England, for example, it is a national obsession, the stuff of daily tabloid headlines, and the iconic captain's armband is embroidered and personalized for every national-team match. "[The band] is the only visual representation in the game of recognition," says Alexi Lalas, who captained the U.S. a handful of times in the 1990s. "And we're all a bunch of egomaniacs. We want that attention and adulation, something we can point to that says, We're special."
Well, maybe not everyone. Before Dempsey's first game in the role, a March 22 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, U.S. equipment manager Jesse Bignami gave him the option of 15 different armband styles. Dempsey chose a simple red one and wore it inside-out, obscuring any logos and words, saying that he wanted an armband that was "plain like me." As Dempsey puts it, "I don't see myself as the leader but as one of the leaders, with guys like Tim Howard and Michael Bradley."
Given the circumstances, perhaps the U.S. could use that glut of guidance. The team has three World Cup qualifiers in 12 days starting this Friday at Jamaica, and leadership will be key for a team that struggled in a friendly 4--2 loss last week against Belgium before barely preserving a three-goal lead to close out Germany's B team 4--3 on Sunday.
Even Dempsey says he was surprised that Klinsmann chose him to replace 34-year-old defender Carlos Bocanegra, who had captained the U.S. since 2007 but who lost his spot in the squad this year. While Dempsey, 30, may be the most accomplished U.S. player in Europe, where he plays for England's Tottenham Hotspur, he has never captained his club team and has had the reputation of being a talented lone wolf. For most observers, the favorites to become captain had been two other World Cup 2010 veterans: Howard, the 34-year-old goalkeeper, and Bradley, a 25-year-old midfielder whose foxhole mentality befits a player nicknamed Il Generale by fans of his Italian club, AS Roma.
But Klinsmann, who himself captained Germany from 1993 to '98, says he had good reasons to choose Dempsey. "The role of a captain is the right arm of the coach; it has to be a person he has trust in," Klinsmann explains. "But I also have in mind with Clint that I want him to step it up. 'You're somebody that everyone's looking at now. It should make you feel good, proud. But it also makes you feel responsibility automatically—whether you want it or not.' "
"It's more pressure, but it's also a compliment," says Dempsey, who has responded with aplomb, scoring four times in four games wearing the armband, including twice against Germany, to become the U.S.'s No. 2 alltime scorer with 35 goals. "It makes me that much more determined and focused on trying to help the team be successful."
Klinsmann's calculus is straightforward. Howard, and especially Bradley, may be more natural leaders than Dempsey, but they can continue leading without the armband. Giving Dempsey the captaincy will force him out of his comfort zone and challenge him to think more in terms of the team. The hoped-for result: more collective leadership, which is critical at a time when Klinsmann is still trying to get the U.S. to play with a proactive, rather than reactive, style against the world's top teams. As last week's games showed, that project still has a long way to go.
Steve Sampson, who coached the U.S. from 1995 to '98, thinks Klinsmann's captaincy choice is crucial. "It's going to take some time for Jürgen to implement his plan and his style, and that will be a lot easier if key members of the team leadership support it," he says. "From a playing standpoint, Dempsey deserves [the armband] because of everything he's doing in England. However, he's not incredibly vocal. I just wonder if he will truly embrace the opportunity."
Sampson isn't the only former U.S. manager who might have picked someone other than Dempsey. Bruce Arena, the most successful American soccer coach of all time, says Bradley would have been the ideal captain. "I don't know the dynamics inside the team, but for me he bleeds red, white and blue," says the U.S. coach from 1998 to 2006. Yet Arena argues that success comes down to more than just the captain, citing the U.S.'s meltdown under Sampson at World Cup 1998, where the team lost all three games and imploded into public recriminations. "What a bunch of lunatics, the whole group," he says. "Bad eggs and everything. Leadership has something to do with that, but the lesson there is that the responsibility isn't all on one guy. The story is the group."