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Klinsmann would be lucky to avoid the soap opera that surrounded the captaincy of that 1998 team. In '95, Sampson had given the armband to midfielder John Harkes, a move that seemed validated when the U.S. reached the Copa América semifinals that year. But then, two months before World Cup '98 and seemingly out of nowhere, the coach dropped his captain entirely from the team. Only 12 years later did U.S. forward Eric Wynalda reveal—and Sampson confirm—that Harkes had been jettisoned for having an affair with Wynalda's then wife. "It was a very difficult decision," Sampson says, "because John had such a positive impact on the field." (Harkes has denied having the affair; to SI, he described the time leading up to World Cup '98 as "a debacle.")
If the story is the group, as Arena says, then it's important to know, beyond the captaincy, that Klinsmann has settled on his primary leaders on the U.S. team. He specifies a gang of four that includes, in his hierarchy, Dempsey, Howard, Bradley and 31-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones, a tungsten-hard German-American who plays for Schalke in the Bundesliga. "Going forward toward Brazil 2014, those are the four guys that have the strongest work," says Klinsmann. "Other players have amazing influence and talent, but from an experience and aggression point of view those four will define the path now."
Immediately, two players stand out for not being mentioned in that group: Bocanegra and Landon Donovan, the national team's alltime leading goal scorer. Both of them were left off the U.S. squad for the most recent qualifiers. Donovan, 31, took a three-month-long, self-imposed sabbatical from soccer earlier this year, saying that he needed to rediscover his hunger for the game, and he missed three World Cup qualifiers as a result. Whether he gets the chance to play in his fourth World Cup next year may depend on how well he performs in next month's CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will be composed mainly of B-squad players. (Both Donovan and Bocanegra were included last week on the preliminary roster for that tournament.)
And so Dempsey it is. But what exactly does the U.S. national-team captain have to do? For starters, there are the pregame duties: leading the team out of the tunnel, participating in the coin toss and exchanging a small custom-made banner with the opposing captain. During the game the captain represents the coach on the field, and he's the lone figure who is supposed to communicate with the referee. Lalas describes the role as that of a lobbyist, by turns schmoozing, cajoling and establishing a rapport with a figure who can have an immense influence on the outcome. Here, Klinsmann cites Howard's location on the field in relation to the referee's as one reason he picked Dempsey over the goalkeeper. "I don't want Timmy running out 50 yards for every little thing," he explains.
As for the captain's more private tasks, those include setting an example by training hard every day; serving as a conduit between players and the coaching staff; welcoming and integrating new talent into the team; and preventing competing cliques of players from becoming a problem. Recalling the 2002 squad that reached the World Cup quarterfinals, Claudio Reyna, who captained that team, says, "We would go out to dinner with different guys every night—maybe three guys one night and a different seven guys the next night. That was the best aspect of our team: There were no egos."
How a national-team coach handles seating at team meals can be revealing. When Bob Bradley was the U.S. coach, from 2007 to '11, he made clear that he didn't want the same players sitting together at every meal. (As a result, one group of minority players formed a BlackBerry Messenger group called the Black Table.) Klinsmann has been even more forceful: At his last U.S. camp, in March, he debuted a new dining setup of just two long tables, one for staff and one for players.
The U.S.'s new post-Bocanegra player leadership faced its first big test during that camp with the publication of a Sporting News exposé that quoted several anonymous U.S. players criticizing Klinsmann's coaching acumen. Ultimately, Michael Bradley (Bob's son) took the strongest line publicly, calling the anonymous quotes "shameful" and "embarrassing." And according to Dempsey, players held a private team meeting. "Clint did a fantastic job as our captain, and so did Michael, who we rely heavily upon for his leadership and attitude," says Howard, who was out injured at the time and instead spoke to teammates by phone from England. "Those guys put all that nonsense aside and got the results."
"[These things] can go one way or the other," says Dempsey of the comments. "Dealing with it together as a team ... I think it brought us closer together."
After losing to Honduras in the first game of the World Cup--qualifying Hexagonal, the U.S. picked up a much-needed four points with a victory against Costa Rica and a tie at Mexico in the week following the report. But the competition for a World Cup spot is tight—none of the six remaining CONCACAF teams has more than one win in its first three games—and the three qualifiers this month will determine which teams are in the driver's seat for a berth at Brazil 2014.
Continuity has been an elusive concept under Klinsmann, who has used 27 starting lineups in his 27 games in charge, but he has settled on one thing, at least: a new Captain America. History will tell if he made the right call.