Even before they kicked off their first game in the 2014 World Cup, Clint Dempsey and his teammates could tell something special was happening in Brazil. Even before he scored the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history, Dempsey knew that this was not going to be quite like his trips to the World Cup in 2010 and 2006. The U.S. men's national soccer team was facing certain doom in the Group of Death, yet the streets around the Estadio das Dunas in Natal were filled with true believers adorned in red, white and blue before its opening match against Ghana.
"On the bus going to the first game, seeing the fans walking and getting into the stadium with all the U.S. flags, people with the flags painted on their face, all the people wearing USA jerseys. Seeing that, we knew right away that, wow, we were definitely being represented here," Dempsey told The Huffington Post about the support for the U.S. national team in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. "It's exciting to know that you have that support and you do feel that in the stadium. So we appreciated it."
With all those fans behind them, Dempsey and the U.S. team escaped the vaunted Group Of Death by way of a thrilling win over World Cup-rival Ghana and an impressive showing in a draw with Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. Dempsey scored in both games, becoming the first U.S. player to score at three different World Cups. After the U.S. campaign ended in a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Belgium in the Round of 16, the 31-year-old forward from Nacogdoches, Texas returned to Major League Soccer and the Seattle Sounders. Sometimes bloodied, sometimes glaring, sometimes celebrating and seemingly always serious, his had became the face of U.S. Soccer. Showing that the soccer passion which blossomed stateside during the World Cup wasn't dissipating just yet, Dempsey's first game back with the Sounders was attended by more than 64,000 fans. Making clear Dempsey's centrality to the sport in the U.S., it was announced during his second game after returning from Brazil, a friendly against Tottenham Hotspurs of the English Premier League, that he would be featured alongside Lionel Messi on the North American cover of EA Sports' FIFA 15 video game.
On the eve of that match against Spurs, Dempsey carved out a few minutes to talk with HuffPost Sports about his experiences in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, his dream goal against Ghana and the future of U.S. Soccer on and off the field.
HuffPost Sports: As someone who has been with the national team through multiple World Cup cycles, how did the support for and the interest in the team this summer compare to what you've experienced previously?
Clint Dempsey: When I first started playing with the U.S. team, playing in friendlies or World Cup qualifying games, sometimes it would feel even in America that you weren't playing at home. To now, playing at a World Cup in Brazil and feeling like you are playing a home game in terms of the number of fans that were at the stadium and chanting is such a turnaround because I've been playing with national team for 10 years. To see that's happened only in 10 years, imagine what will happen in the next 10.
HP Sports: How much was the team aware of the tremendous interest in the World Cup and all the massive viewing parties back at home?
Dempsey: We were aware of some the videos of, as you mentioned, the viewing parties at bars so packed people can't get in, the fans cheering in unison, the fans filling up stadiums to watch the games on the Jumbotron. It's just incredible really, just the passion and the support. We definitely felt it while we were in Brazil during the World Cup. Also, outside of Brazil, the most tickets sold were to the U.S. So playing in the games down there was almost like a home away from home. To see how far the game has come is pretty impressive.
HP Sports: At the start of that first game against Ghana you produced a moment that those fans won't soon forget. How did that opening goal come about and what were your first reactions when it happened?
Dempsey: For me, it was the first World Cup that I had been apart of that I was going to be the captain, feeling that pressure to try to help lead the team. Also, it was the opportunity to be in three World Cups with the team, and I was excited about that. And being the first American to score in three consecutive World Cups or three World Cups and to do it in that fashion and do it so quickly into the start of the first World Cup game, it was almost like a dream. You couldn't believe it. You had to pinch yourself after I scored, after we were celebrating and were getting ready for Ghana to kick the ball off. It was something I'll never forget.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 16, 2014
HP Sports: How did your role as captain impact your interactions with teammates? Did your preparation or behavior change due to the evolution of your role in the side?
Dempsey: There was a lot of leadership in the team in terms of experience, in terms of players like Tim Howard and Michael Bradley. So just having a lot of experienced players on the team, I think it prepared the guys well in terms of getting that confidence, knowing to believe in themselves. It was something that was passed down by the coach, Jurgen [Klinsmann], who has played at the highest level and coached at the highest level as well and prepared us the best possible [way] for that group we were in to advance from it. Because a lot of people counted us out, but we believed in ourselves and we felt the support of a lot of the American fans who believed in us and we were able to make it happen. So it was good to get off to such a great start in terms of winning the first game and getting the three points and, on a personal note, being able to score and taking that confidence with you going to the next games. Yes, it was a must-win game. It was a game we needed to get three points. You didn't know what was going to happen after they equalized so late in the game in the 80th minute and then us being able to convert from a corner and get the winning goal through John Brooks was a pretty special moment and a great start because we needed as many points as possible to try to advance out of the group. That was a major step in the right direction.
HP Sports: From the outside, there seemed to be a real sense of togetherness and unity in the team. Did the players feel that way? Was there anything that Klinsmann or any of the players did to foster that?
Dempsey: I think it's something that develops on its own. It's through the World Cup qualifying process, the ups and downs of that. Having to stick together, having to win games at home. There are always must-win games during World Cup qualifying preparation and then trying to get results away from home. And being in camp and working hard, training together and understanding the opportunity and the moment and trying to make the most of it. Knowing how if we were to be successful that we would have to do it together, I think just understanding that as a team is just something that kind of happened on its own. But it happened because we have a lot of good guys on the team. There was a lot of togetherness, a lot camaraderie. And I think that's why we were successful and able to get out of the group. I think that played an important role in that.
HP Sports: Before the team left for Brazil, there were fears that Landon Donovan being left off the roster could be a divisive issue that could hinder such togetherness. Was there any pause or disagreement after that decision by the players who made the final 23-man roster?
Dempsey: You got to keep moving forward, it's business. At the end of the day, the manger has to make difficult decisions. But he has to make decisions that he thinks are best for the team moving forward. He's either applauded for doing a good job or he's fired because the team doesn't perform well. It's the same for players. You either perform and you're able to still be a part of the team or when you're not performing you're left off. It's just the nature of the business. You just got to keep moving forward and work as hard as you can and control the things you can. For the players left on the team, that's just working as hard and making sure they do everything you can to get into the starting 11. I think that competition that competition pushed our team to do well. But once again, just focus on things you can control, that's what we tried to do.
HP Sports: Some of the players who were more surprising selections to the final roster -- whether it was Brooks or DeAndre Yedlin -- stepped up. Was that something that you expected having been around them or were the veterans surprised, pleasantly, by the readiness of some of the younger players?
Dempsey: The thing is you don't know what is going to happen until you're put into a situation. Those players that you mentioned, they stepped up. You look at brooks: He got his opportunity when he got into the game, he made a difference. He scored the game-winning goal against Ghana. You look at DeAndre Yedlin: When he was put into the game he made a difference. He was able to play a part in creating one of the goals in the Portugal game, which was a cross and it got deflected then it went to another player who crossed it back to me and I was able to get on the end of it. But he was able to make an impact when he got his opportunities. He also played well in the Belgium game when he came on through injury of Fabian Johnson. You look at Julian Green: When he got his opportunity to get on the field against Belgium he scored the goal that gave us a little bit of hope that if we got one more we could equalize the game and go into penalties. It was great to see those guys step up. But you never know what people are going to do until they are put into those types of situations. They definitely took advantage. It's good to see for the future because they are the up-and-coming guys, they are the young guys breaking through. That's good for the future of U.S. Soccer.
HP Sports: From your point of view, as someone who has been through the ups and downs of World Cup cycles, what do you think the goals for U.S. Soccer should be going forward?
Dempsey: To keep improving. It's two World Cups in a row that we've advanced out of the group stages and gotten to the knockouts rounds. Keep moving forward and going forward and going further than what've done previously. So that's what you're trying to do. For the young players coming up and for the players that are still established, it's about staying hungry and making sure that you don't get satisfied with just being a part of one World Cup or being apart of two World Cups. It's about trying to keep improving and making sure that you get another opportunity to experience those moments. Hopefully, the U.S. can continue moving in the right direction and I think they will.
HP Sports: Looking back at the team's run in Brazil, what are the moments or accomplishments that you're going to cherish years from now?
Dempsey: For me it's being able to play in three World Cups, being able to score in three World Cups, being able to advance out of the Group of Death with our team when a lot of people didn't believe in us. Also having the privilege to captain the team during that World Cup and being able to be a part of the team advancing out of that group and getting to the knockout stages, those are things on a personal level I will take with me.
HP Sports: You came back to a great crowd in Seattle after the World Cup. How significant is it for you see such interest in an MLS game?
Dempsey: Playing here in Seattle, you're spoiled because it's 40,000 plus every home game and then every so often they do open the stadium more and you have the opportunity, like we did against the Portland Timbers, to play in front of a 64,000 crowd. It's awesome to see how far the game continues to grow in the States and the future looks bright.
HP Sports: As a star with U.S. Soccer who will be the cover of the latest FIFA video game, you're in a rare position to be a role model in your sport. What sort of impact to do you hope to have on the next generation of U.S. Soccer players?
Dempsey: I'm excited about being on the cover of a game that I grew up playing and I enjoyed playing with my friends and talking trash and getting to play with players who you looked up to, whether it was players on the club level or the national level. To be on the cover with one of the best players in the world is also pretty cool. But I've enjoyed my time playing whether it was for club or for country. I still have more years left to go and I'll try to make the most of those years. I just hope that the game continues to grow and if I've played a part in that then great. I'm looking forward to the kids that are coming along and taking it to the next level because I know that we have players in this country that are capable of doing that. So I'm excited about what the future holds.
Here it is!
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) July 19, 2014