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Premier player returns

Dempsey revved up for Foxborough game

Clint Dempsey doesn't need a car with GPS or a Mapquest printout on the dashboard. The man spent three star-spangled years hereabouts on his way from Nacogdoches to London via Foxborough, so he has the Boston street grid wired.

"It's cool to know where I am," says the former Revolution star, who'll be back in Gillette Stadium tonight when the US men's soccer team takes on El Salvador in its final Gold Cup preliminary round match. "If I'm on Mass. Ave., I can get to Comm. Ave. and then to Newbury Street."

This is Dempsey's first time back since he decamped for the Queen's neighborhood last winter, signed on with Fulham in the English Premier League, and scored the "$100 Million Goal" against Liverpool that kept the Whites from being relegated.

"Some people said, 'You're a Fulham legend, you'll go down in history,' " says Dempsey, who came off the bench in the final home match and scored on his first shot in the 69th minute. "I still haven't grasped the importance of it. I was just trying to help the team out."

His sniping skills come as no surprise to Revolution supporters, who watched the attacking midfielder drill holes in nets at the Razor, nor to anyone who saw Dempsey score the only goal by a US player in last summer's World Cup in Germany.

"He produces," says US coach Bob Bradley. "He can make plays that are unique, that can determine a game. He can make a play out of nothing."

That's why Fulham paid $4 million, a record transfer fee for a Major League Soccer player, to lure Dempsey across the pond in January. By the time he arrived, though, it was midseason and he was assigned a seat on the bench.

"It was tough, but that's the choice you make when you make the decision to play against better competition," acknowledges Dempsey, who was coming back from an ankle injury that hobbled him in the MLS playoffs. "Always, you want to be playing, to be one of the main guys for the team. It's tough when you're on the back burner.

"I was getting time, but not significant time. That had something to do with our situation."

As the season wore on, Fulham had begun slip-sliding down the Premiership table from eighth place toward the relegation zone, the bottom three places in the 20-club division.

"Relegation can kill a club," says Dempsey, whose mates won only eight of 38 matches. "Look at Leeds. They were in the Champions League and then they went down, then down again. It's like a downward spiral that you can't get out of."

It's a familiar spiral for Fulham, which has spent most of the past four decades struggling to go up the down escalator, often between the second and third divisions. In 1996, the Whites hit rock bottom, losing to the worst team in the lowest league.

Dropping out of the Premiership, though, can cost a club an estimated $100 million in TV cash plus other income. For Fulham, the tattered low-rent neighbor to London's fat-cat clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea, relegation would have been a financial disaster for the city's oldest professional club.

For decades, Fulham has been a soccer version of the old Kansas City Athletics, the place where you went in order to go someplace better. But for Dempsey, who craved an international upgrade, Fulham was an attractive option. It was in the Premier League. It had two other Americans (Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra) on the roster. "And it looked like a team that gave everybody a chance," he says.

At least eventually. After playing 90 minutes for the Revolution, picking up 20 here and there was humbling.

"Players who go to Europe find out quickly that earning a first-team spot is hard work," says Bradley. "Nothing is given to a player. With those clubs, nothing comes for free."

Dempsey concedes that playing a reserve role chafed at him.

"There were times when I thought, 'Man, I should be starting,' " he says. His fellow Americans, who'd been through the same thing, counseled patience and persistence.

"I'm sure it's hard for anyone to go to a new team and have to fight for your position," says Bocanegra. "But Clint did a pretty good job of putting his head down and not complaining and kept working."

His break came, ironically, when manager Chris Coleman, who'd fought to bring Dempsey over, was sacked in April and replaced by Lawrie Sanchez. "I tried to flip it as a positive," says Dempsey, who figured that everyone would have to prove himself with the new guy.

When his big moment came against Liverpool, Dempsey made it count for nine figures, slamming home his first goal of the season to give Fulham a 1-0 victory that made the difference in staying up for another year.

"It was a huge goal, obviously," says Bocanegra. "He'll be remembered for that goal."

It had a huge impact, too, on Dempsey, whose life might have been turned upside-down by relegation.

Now, he can stand pat and stay put with soon-to-be-wife Bethany Keegan , who'll be doing a London internship as an educational psychologist. Dempsey can stay in his quiet two-bedroom Wimbledon flat ("2,300 pounds a month," he winces), which is a two-minute walk from the Tube and near restaurants where he can get Italian and Indian food and sushi.

The man from East Texas is a Londoner now. He's figured out how to drive on the other side of the road and how to cross the street without getting blindsided by a double-decker bus. He's found a middle ground between American cheese and the "mature, smelly" English stuff by discovering Gouda. And he's learned how to decipher the peculiar local version of English.

"I was lucky enough to be around [Revolution coach] Steve Nicol, and his English is pretty tough," Dempsey says. "It would have been worse in Liverpool."

Like old times
Next season -- meaning next month -- Dempsey gets to start on the same page as everyone else at Fulham.

"The most important thing for me is to get on the field," he says. "If I'm on the field, I'm not going to complain."

By now, Dempsey knows his teammates, knows the Premiership and knows his way around the Queen's town. This month has been a chance to pull on a US jersey again and play with former Revs teammates Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, and Michael Parkhurst.

It was Twellman, playing his old setup game, who fed Dempsey for the only goal in the victory over Guatemala in the Gold Cup opener. Just like old times.

"You know what Taylor's going to do," says Dempsey. "Fight hard, get in the box, try to create chances."

They were a killer combination here, and Dempsey confesses that it was difficult to pack up his kit bag and leave, especially after coming so close to the MLS crown last November.

"It was kind of bittersweet," he says. "We made it to the final but we didn't win."

This week, the man they call Deuce will take the field twice at the Razor, where he savored his seasons in the sun.

"I had good times at the stadium," Dempsey says. "The fans have always showed me love."

It only took one swing of the leg, though, for Dempsey to become an immortal at Craven Cottage , Fulham's ancient playpen on the banks of the Thames. A $100 Million Goal buys a lot of love in London, even for a Yank.