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Globe North Sports

Dempsey a poster child for casual play

Clint Dempsey (left) fights for the ball with Chelsea’s Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien during an English Premier League match. Clint Dempsey (left) fights for the ball with Chelsea’s Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien during an English Premier League match. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)
By Brion O’Connor
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2010

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Soccer parents and coaches who want to see whether the concept of “street soccer’’ can be effective need look no farther than Clint Dempsey.

The former New England Revolution star, now a mainstay on the United States national team and the Fulham Football Club in England’s Premier League, is one of the most versatile and imaginative players ever to come from this country. The Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year in 2004, and a two-time all-star while playing for the Revolution (2004-06), Dempsey scored 25 goals in 71 games for the Revolution. He is one of only two Americans to have scored in separate FIFA World Cup tournaments (2006 and last summer).

Where did that talent come from?

There wasn’t much organized soccer available to Dempsey and his brother, Ryan, growing up in a trailer park in Nacogdoches, Texas. Their initiation to the game was playing pickup games with other neighborhood children. The brothers studied videos of the world’s great players, such as Argentina’s Diego Maradona, and practiced their sleight-of-foot moves relentlessly.

As a result, Dempsey developed the intuitive nature that makes him so unpredictable, so distinctly un-American on the soccer pitch. And so dangerous. In the past three years since leaving New England, Dempsey, 27, has been responsible for some of the most ingenious — and most audacious — goals to come off the boot of a US native.

During the summer, US national team coach Bob Bradley told Sports Illustrated that Dempsey’s flair for artistry reminded him of the late basketball Hall of Famer and former Boston Celtic “Pistol Pete’’ Maravich. “Clint’s capable of making an attacking play that’s a little different, that can create an advantage, that can lead to a goal,’’ Bradley told the magazine. “To have a player who can come up with something different at the right time, that’s still such a special part of soccer.’’

That “something different’’ is precisely the ingredient that Sam Snow of US Youth Soccer hopes “street soccer’’ will provide for this emerging soccer country.

“Take a look at any number of world-class soccer players, all around the world, and the majority of them grew up in a less structured, less stressful youth soccer environment,’’ said Snow, pointing out Dempsey’s background. “They played pickup soccer, and probably played some other sports, too, when they were young. That’s where they learned to have some of that creativity that we see out on the field. We want creativity from our players, and then we over-organize it out of them.’’

Fortunately, no one got to Clint Dempsey.

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